Mon Talk Food in Jamaica: Exploring the National Dish, Ackee and Saltfish

Ackee & Saltfish, Jamaica’s National Dish:

When most people think of Jamaican food, they think of jerk chicken, or jerk sauce and seasoning on just about anything else, from pork to shrimp. However, the national dish of Jamaica has nothing to do with it. Instead, Jamaica’s national dish is actually Ackee and Saltfish. On a recent trip to the island, Man Talk Food turned Mon Talk Food to dive into Ackee and Saltfish for the first time.

Ackee, a Poisonous Delicacy

Ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, was brought to the island from West Africa in the early to mid 1700s. The biological name of the tree species is Blighia Sapida, named for William Bligh, a Captain of the British Royal Navy who first brought the fruit from Jamaica back to England for scientific purposes in 1793. (Bligh had quite the career, famously surviving the mutiny on the HMS Bounty after navigating a tiny boat some 4,000 miles across the ocean.)

Most sources note ackee on the island anywhere from 20 to 70 years prior to this point. Ackee quickly rose to prominence, yet it carries one major caveat — it can be poisonous, thanks to the presence of toxins hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B.

The lesson was learned the hard way by so many that a case of ackee poisoning is known as Jamaican Vomiting Sickness. Beyond vomiting though, the fruit can actually cause death in severe instances.

Luckily, avoiding the toxic effects of ackee is relatively straightforward once you know the rules of engagement. Ackee must be ripe in order to be eaten. At this point, the outer, protective layer of the fruit turns red and opens naturally. The yellow flesh inside, known as the arilli, is then edible and free of hypoglycin A. However, the large black seeds, which always contain hypoglycin B, must still be avoided.

What is Ackee and Saltfish?

Ackee and Saltfish (which is also commonly known as either salt cod or codfish), is a savory, sauteed meal that in many ways resembles scrambled eggs. The unique yellow flesh of the ackee looks the part of scrambled egg curds when broken into small pieces, and even feels the part texturally when made in this fashion.

It’s prepared by first boiling the ackee, and then sauteing the fruit together in a skillet with peppers, onions, and a variety of seasonings. After cooking it all together, the saltfish can be added in to be heated and mixed with the rest of the dish’s components.

As a whole plate, it’s typically served with Johnnycakes, boiled green bananas or plantains, and breadfruit, a starchy, almost potato-like staple fruit.

It may take your brain a moment to get accustomed to the idea that the plate of “eggs” in front of you is actually sauteed fruit, and beyond that, a potentially poisonous fruit. Once past that hurdle though, Ackee and Saltfish is an excellent stand in for the scrambled eggs it resembles.

Author: Jake Emen

I’m Jake, and I’m your host on this journey. I'm the man doing the eating and the talking around here. I’m a writer based outside of Washington, D.C., and I'm also talking whiskey, local events, travel, and other assorted misadventures. Follow me on the Tweet Machine - @ManTalkFood, or send an email to jake [at] mantalkfood.com.

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