Ackee and saltfish is synonymous with Jamaica, as entwined with the nationwide identification as reggae or cricket. Spiked with herbs and peppers and accompanied by wealthy Caribbean trimmings like plantains and breadfruit, it pays testimony to the nation’s tempestuous historical past and multiracial roots. The world’s quickest man, Usain Bolt apparently has it for breakfast. However how did a meal that mixes a preserved North Atlantic fish and a doubtlessly poisonous West African fruit turn into Jamaica’s nationwide dish?
The reply is embedded within the nation’s historical past of slavery. Ackee is a voluptuous, red-skinned fruit associated to the lychee that’s native to Ghana. Saltfish originates within the uneven seas of Northern Europe and Japanese Canada. The components’ subsequent marriage within the kitchens and eating places of Jamaica was a direct results of the triangular slave commerce between Britain, West Africa and its Caribbean colonies within the 18th and nineteenth Centuries.
“Ackee was delivered to the island, in all probability on a slave ship from West Africa, someday within the mid-1700s,” defined Janet Crick, director of Jamaica Culinary Excursions in Falmouth on the island’s north coast. “Its identify is derived from the unique identify of the fruit within the Ghanaian Twi language: ankye. Curiously, its scientific identify Blighia Sapida was accorded in 1806 in honour of Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), who took the plant from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, in 1793. Previous to this, the ackee was unknown to science.”
The fruit tailored nicely to Jamaica’s tropical local weather and shortly flourished. Today, you’ll see broad, dense ackee timber embellishing the panorama all over the place from Montego Bay’s Hip Strip to the gardens of Goldeneye, the previous property of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
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Saltfish (historically cod) is caught and ready within the North Atlantic. Within the days earlier than freezers and fridges, drying and salting was the principle technique of preserving fish. By the mid-Seventeenth Century, it grew to become economically viable to move giant portions of salted cod from Nova Scotia in Canada to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, the place it was traded for rum, sugar and molasses.
That each meals grew to become staples in colonial Jamaica was not shocking. Non-perishable saltfish is cheap, simple to retailer and excessive in protein. Ackee is loaded with fibre, protein and vitamin C. In Jamaica’s brutal slave society, the foodstuffs made an affordable and nutritious repast for enslaved folks on the nation’s scorching, humid sugar plantations. There is no such thing as a document of when the 2 components have been first mixed in a single dish; however in some unspecified time in the future over the past century, a definitive recipe emerged.
“First you boil the ackee and saltfish collectively for round 20 minutes earlier than draining and eradicating any fish bones,” defined Cuthbert Binns, government chef at Pelican Grill, a longstanding restaurant on Montego Bay’s Hip Strip. “On this means the ackee absorbs a few of the salt.”
“Subsequent, you sauté onions, tomatoes, scallions and Scotch bonnet peppers in a separate pan. Add the boiled ackee and saltfish, sprinkle with a little bit thyme and black pepper and it’s able to serve.”
Sides can differ, however the requirements, in response to Cuthbert, are roasted breadfruit, boiled inexperienced banana, johnnycake (deep-fried dumplings) and pan-fried plantain.
When cooked, the spongey ackee flesh turns from beige to buttery yellow. Its delicate creamy flavour completely balances the sharp saltiness of the fish. Though technically labeled as a fruit, ackee is handled extra like a vegetable within the Jamaican kitchen. Vacationers usually mistake it for scrambled eggs.
Ackee and saltfish is historically consumed for breakfast or brunch, and Cuthbert estimates his kitchen dispenses round 50 servings per day. As an imaginative spin-off, the Pelican Grill additionally provides the concoction as a dinner appetizer spooned over a slice of bammy (cassava flatbread). Store round and also you’re prone to encounter vegan-friendly “virgin ackee”, whereas meat variants substitute the fish with salt-cured “corned pork”.
You don’t should wander removed from the Pelican Grill to seek out an ackee tree. A number of of the aromatic evergreens develop wild on the street to Montego Bay’s Sangster Worldwide Airport. Ackee might be harvested year-round. “Once I was younger, we had two ackee timber in our yard,” recounted Cuthbert. “Some months, one tree would yield fruit whereas the opposite remained unproductive. Then they might change over. It was solely throughout the summer season months that each timber have been productive.”
Regardless of its vivid vermillion pores and skin, ackee has a darkish facet: the fruit is poisonous when unripe. Consuming it earlier than it’s mature induces what is called Jamaican vomiting illness, which, on uncommon events, might be deadly. Time Journal has listed ackee as one of many world’s 10 most harmful meals. In consequence, its commerce is fastidiously managed. In 1973, the American FDA (Meals and Drug Administration) banned the importation of ackee into the US. After a protracted lobbying marketing campaign by the Jamaica Ackee Activity Pressure, the ban was partially lifted in 2000, permitting canned or frozen ackee to be imported so long as it meets tight FDA rules.
For Jamaicans, there are not any such restrictions. Ackee is commonly offered by the roadside on makeshift tables mere metres from its mom tree. “It’s secure to select ackee when the fruit has opened naturally and you may see the yellow pods inside with out forcing the fruit open,” mentioned Crick. “Ackee accommodates a poisonous fuel, hypoglycin A, which is launched when the crimson fruit pops open, that means it’s mature and prepared for consumption.”
For Jamaican meals aficionados, the nuances go additional. There are two various kinds of ackee – cheese and butter – every with their culinary deserves. “The flesh of butter ackee has a richer, extra yellow color,” mentioned Crick. “It boils shortly and mashes or disintegrates very simply when cooked. In contrast, cheese ackee is a lighter pale color and far firmer in texture, inflicting it to face up extra readily to the cooking course of.”
Ackee’s toxic picture has meant its adoption as a meals delicacy exterior Jamaica has been restricted. In West Africa, the seeds and pods are used to make cleaning soap. In Haiti, meals shortages have typically led to sicknesses and deaths after folks have eaten unripe ackee.
Ackee has a darkish facet: the fruit is poisonous when unripe
For the Jamaican diaspora, getting recent ackee is troublesome. Most expats should accept the canned selection, an satisfactory if unspectacular substitute akin to consuming tinned peaches quite than juicy market fruit. Saltfish is equally variable. Today it’s extra prone to come from Norway or Guyana than Nova Scotia. Whereas cod continues to be the default, depleted shares in recent times implies that different white fish reminiscent of tilapia is typically used.
For the actual breakfast deal, Crick says an on-island expertise is all the time higher than consuming overseas, not simply because the ackee’s recent, however as a result of home-grown Scotch bonnet peppers and herbs guarantee superior seasoning. Her favorite haunts are a little bit cookshop referred to as Yash Bowl in her residence base of Falmouth; the restaurant on the Sandy Haven Boutique lodge in Negril; and Deliworks at Sovereign Buying Centre within the capital Kingston.
Wherever you eat it, you might be tasting a chunk of Jamaica’s soul. Ackee and saltfish might have its roots within the horrors of the transatlantic slave commerce, however the modern dish, marinated for years in Jamaica’s cultural melting pot, completely encapsulates a rustic whose motto is “Out of many, one folks”.
Culinary Roots is a collection from BBC Journey connecting to the uncommon and native meals woven into a spot’s heritage.
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