When people think of Jamaican cuisine, foods like jerk chicken and beef patties often come to mind. Granted, those are wonderful Jamaican street food dishes. But, they only constitute a fraction of what Jamaican cuisine has to offer. A lively mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures, Jamaican food is a unique blend of influences from European, African, Asian, and Native American cooking styles. Ackee and saltfish, Jamaica’s national dish, is a perfect example of this fusion of cultures.
What is Ackee and Saltfish?
Saltfish and ackee is a savory breakfast dish made with salted cod and boiled ackee fruit as the main ingredients. Onions, scotch bonnet peppers, and sweet peppers are also added, but more vegetables can be used depending upon one’s tastes. Spices like thyme, black pepper, and allspice, or pimiento, are also essential components. This flavorful and vibrant dish is usually served with Jamaican fried dumplings, a popular side course made of fried dough.
TAKEAWAY: Did you know that parts of the Ackee fruit are actually poisonous? It’s true. Because of this, countries such as the United States place shipping restrictions on the Ackee fruit during the import process. The rind and seeds of an Ackee fruit have high enough concentrations of hypoglycin A. That’s why the FDA recommends not consuming the fruit until a certain point in it’s ripening process and to never consume certain portions of this fruit at any time.
What is Ackee?
This unique fruit is a type of soapberry that grows in pods, which come from a type of evergreen tree native to West Africa. Ackee is considered Jamaica’s national fruit and is a relative of the lychee. Once the pods ripen, they turn red and open. This process reveals the fruit’s yellowish, edible flesh called arilli, as well as its seeds. The large, black seeds are inedible and highly toxic.
As a matter of fact, chefs must be careful. The fruit can be poisonous if not properly prepared before eating, much like cassava root. As long as care is exercised when harvesting and preparing the fruit for consumption, it is a tasty and necessary ingredient for this delightfully exotic dish. CooksInfo has an article with further information about safe handling and cooking Ackee fruit.
How I Learned to Eat (and Cook) Like a Jamaican
My first experience with Jamaican cuisine was in college when my friend Sarah invited me to lunch at a Caribbean bakery and grill. Sarah was a first-generation American, whose family was originally from Jamaica. Naturally, she grew up eating things like oxtail, plantains, and the like.
Because I had never had Jamaican food before, I saw going to this restaurant as something of an adventure. I decided to order braised oxtail with a side of Jamaican dumplings. After that day, the rest is history. I was hooked! I went to that Caribbean place as often as I could, just to try a new dish. When I told Sarah how much I loved going there and tasting different Jamaican meals, she offered to share some recipes with me. It is my pleasure to pass one along.
Sarah’s Ackee and Saltfish Recipe
- 1/2 lb. of dried and salted cod
- 1 can of ackee fruit
- A medium onion, chopped
- A medium tomato, chopped
- A bell pepper, chopped
- 1/3 of a scotch bonnet pepper, seeds removed
- 1 sprig of thyme
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. of black pepper
- 1/4 tsp. of allspice, ground
- 3 tbsp. of oil or butter
Soak the salted cod in cold water overnight and change the water several times to remove the excess salt. Drain the cod, then simmer in a pot of boiling water until tender, or about 15-20 minutes. Once tender, drain the cod and allow to cool.
When the fish is cool, flake it with a fork, taking care to remove any bones and skin. Heat the butter or oil over medium-high heat in a skillet and saute the peppers, onion, and garlic for two minutes. Add the salt fish and tomatoes to the skillet and saute for another 10 minutes. Add the drained ackee to the skillet, stirring gently to incorporate, and cook for about five minutes.
Serve with Jamaican dumplings or another starchy side, like rice or plantains. Follow this recipe, and you’ll be well on your way to cooking like a Jamaican. And if you are not the cooking type, try this delicious exotic dish, and you’ll surely be eating like a Jamaican.