Ackee and saltfish isn’t just Jamaica’s national dish; it’s also a favorite breakfast or brunch for Jamaicans everywhere. Ackee is a savory fruit with thick red skin; when unripe, the skin forms a sealed pod, but when the fruit ripens, the skin opens up to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, ackee came to Jamaica along with enslaved Africans, who used its seed as a talisman.
If incorrectly prepared, fresh ackee can potentially be poisonous, but it is perfectly safe to eat if harvested and prepared correctly. The skin must be naturally open before picking; the pegs, once extracted from the pod, are thoroughly cleaned by removing the seed and the red membrane that is embedded in the flesh of the peg; the fruit is then boiled in salted water. Outside of Jamaica, ackee isn’t sold fresh, but it’s readily available in cans and can be found in online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the USA, Canada, and the UK.
Salt cod, known as saltfish in the islands, is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands as it formed part of the Triangular Trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of the African slave trade, slavery on Caribbean plantations, and the production and trade of West Indian sugar and rum. While high-quality North American salted cod was being exported to Europe, a lower quality product of poorly cured fish—called “West India Cure”—was being sold to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian slave owner relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment for slaves. In fact, trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia to plantation and slave owners in the Caribbean was so high that by 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trade, becoming the first bank ever to expand outside of its country of origin.
What makes this dish original and surprising is how well these two very different ingredients combine to create a meal that is both subtle and bold. Ackee has a soft texture and delicate nutty taste, neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with; this tempers the sharp, bright, saltiness and firm, dry texture of saltfish. The addition of Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions, and scallion, along with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed callaloo and johnnycakes, or fried dumplings, makes an unforgettable feast.