By: Grace Cameron, Editor JamaicanEats magazine
If food tells the story of a culture, then the choice of ackee and saltfish as Jamaica’s national dish should speak volumes to the bravado, showiness and spirit of the island.
Ackee, shunned by other Caribbean islands and rarely eaten elsewhere in the world, has had the misfortune of being labelled poisonous. Still, despite its reputation, Jamaicans have embraced the fruit (which has a buttery flavour and resembles scrambled egg when boiled) and made it irresistibly delicious.
About 10 years ago, National Geographic magazine picked ackee and saltfish (cod fish) as the second best national dish in the world. “Every cuisine tells a unique story about its countryside, climate, and culture,” the magazine stated in the online overview to its National Geographic’s Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe.
The fruit is indigenous to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and other areas of West Africa where it is rarely eaten. It was brought to Jamaica in 1793 to feed enslaved Africans and was readily adopted, growing in yards, farms and along roadsides in cities, towns and the countryside.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, ackee was also planted in Panama, along the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala and Costa Rica as well as Trinidad, Haiti, the Bahamas and other islands of the West Indies. In addition, ackee trees are scattered in Suriname; Venezuela; Colombia; Ecuador; Brazil; Calcutta, India; and some are maintained as curiosities in south Florida. (There’s even a lone ackee tree that grows in Allan Gardens, Toronto.)
The tree has been tried in the warm, moist climate of Guyana but has never survived. In 1900 the Trinidadians outlawed the fruit after it had caused some fatalities.
Still, despite ackee’s unhappy origin as slave food and reputation for poison, Jamaicans have claimed it.
Jamaicans, with their creative culinary skills, have transformed this once lowly food item into amazingly exotic gourmet dishes,
says Janeen McNish, a lecturer in Culinary Arts Production and Experimental Foods at the University of Technology (UTech) in Kingston, Jamaica, in response to National Geographic’s recognition.
Ackee has become a multi-million dollar export to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States where it was once banned by the Food and Drug Administration as a health hazard.
Traditionally boiled and then sautéed with saltfish (cod) or corned pork, onions, tomatoes or tomatise (a small marble-like tomato) ackee, these days, has gone well beyond its marriage with saltfish. Jamaican cooks/chefs at home and abroad are creating items like Ackee Pizza, Jerk Ackee and Ackee and Saltfish Lasagna.
Ackee is safe to eat when picked and processed properly. The pods must open naturally (on their own) and only then are they safe to be cooked and eaten.
Unopened (unripe) ackees or those that are forced to open prematurely are poisonous because of high levels of hypoglycin, a toxin that exists naturally in ackee.
Other uses for ackee:
- Immature fruits can be used to make soap.
- The wood from the tree is termite resistant and can be used for building.
- Extracts from the poisonous seeds are taken to treat parasites and are sometimes used as a fish poison.
- Topical ointment made from crushed ackee leaves is applied to the skin to treat headaches and ulcers.
And ackee leaves are also good as a fodder for goats.
National Geographic’s Top 10 National Dishes
The American hamburger topped the list, but the Caribbean took second and third spots, with Barbados’ Coo-Coo and Flying Fish at number three.
1: Hamburger, U.S.
2: Ackee and Saltfish, Jamaica
3: Coo-Coo and Flying Fish, Barbados
4: Bulgogi, Korea
5: kibbeh, Lebanon/Syria
6: goulash, Hungary
7: wiener Schnitzel, Austria
8: pot-au-Feu, France
9: Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding, England
10: Irish Stew, Ireland