Ackee and Saltfish: Jamaica's National Dish
What Is Ackee and Saltfish?
The simple answer is that ackee and saltfish is Jamaica's national dish.
Never heard of the ackee fruit before? Let me tell you a bit about it. This fruit was first brought to Jamaica from West Africa by the slaves who were taken from their homes and brought into slavery. I believe that the West African captives brought this fruit with them because it was a favorite from home. Since Jamaica was the first place in the New World to bear this fruit, the ackee soon became the national fruit.
In most cases, ackee must be cooked before it is consumed. Of course there are some people who eat it raw, but even then it is still traditionally eaten as part of a meal.
Jamaican ackee trees bear fruit about two to three times per year. However, the trees are not seasonal in the strict sense of the word; when one tree bears fruit, another tree might not. This means that when my area has no ackees, I can always find them elsewhere.
In Jamaica, ackees are sold in the markets, as well as by street vendors. They are sold in bunches of a dozen pods (each pod contains three seeds). A dozen pods can be purchased for anywhere between JA$100 - $300.
Let's look at the recipe for Jamaica's national dish.
- 6 cups (or 2-1/2 to 3 lbs) fresh ackees (equivalent to about 3 dozen ackee pods)
- 6 oz salted codfish (known only as saltfish in Jamaica)
- 8 cups water
- 1 Scotch bonnet pepper, whole
- 6 pimento seeds
- 6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 medium onion, sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 stalk scallion, chopped
- ground black pepper
- If the ackees still have their black seeds, remove them. The easiest and best way to do this is to use a small knife to cut around the seed about 1/16 of an inch (see photo). You may also just pluck the seeds out, but you still need to remove the area where the seed was attached to the flesh.
- Rinse excess salt from saltfish.
- In a pot, add water, Scotch bonnet pepper, pimento seeds. and rinsed saltfish. Cover and bring to a boil.
- Boil for about 5 minutes. Then add ackees (which have been cleaned and seeded).
- Cover and bring to a boil again. Cook until ackees are tender. (Different species/breeds of ackees require different cooking times. Check after 10 minutes for tenderness.)
- After the first 10 minutes, check again every 5 minutes until ackees are tender. It should take no longer than 30 minutes, total.
- When ackees are tender, remove pot from flame. Drain pot, including saltfish, in a colander.
- Remove saltfish from colander. Run fish under cold water until cool enough to handle.
- Remove scales from fish and rinse. Remove all bones, if possible, then break up saltfish into moderately small pieces. The pieces can be as small or as large as you like, but I prefer bite-size (see photo).
- Return the same pot to the stove. Add oil and heat over medium heat. (Using the same pot reduces cleanup and improves the flavor of the resulting dish.)
- When oil is hot, add saltfish back to the pot. Fry for 3 minutes, then add onion, garlic, and scallion. Stir-fry until fragrant.
- Add cooked ackees to pot and stir. Note: The ackees will not remain whole at this point. Don't worry, this is ok. There is only one type of ackee that doesn't break up when cooking, and it's not a very popular type.
- Add a couple pinches of black pepper and stir. Turn flame down and cover. Steam for 3 minutes to allow all flavors to absorb.
- Remove from heat and serve.
What to Serve With Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and salfish is a very flexible dish that pairs well with all kinds of sides. If you aren't sure what to serve with this dish, here are my suggestions:
- Roast breadfruit - In Jamaica, this may be the most popular accompaniment.
- Fried dumplings - A very popular Jamaican breakfast is ackee and saltfish with fried dumplings!
- Boiled banana and yams with boiled dumplings - A popular Jamaican dinner combo.
- Plain white rice - Many people like their ackee and saltfish with plain white rice.
- Rice and peas - Leftover Sunday rice and peas goes extremely well with ackee and saltfish.
- Bread - For a quick snack or light breakfast, bread with ackee and saltfish works well.
Ackee and Saltfish: Do's & Don'ts
Sometimes, ackee and saltfish just isn't prepared well. I have seen this before. I have had people tell me that they don't like this dish—and then I make it, and they are hooked.
I have discovered a few things that people do with the dish that detracts from its great flavor. Here are my tips to ensure that you prepare this dish in a way that allows it to shine.
- Boil (rather than fry) the pepper with the ackee. This will enhance the flavor without overpowering your dish.
- Use either coconut oil or vegetable oil. (Don't use olive oil; its flavor is too strong for this dish.)
- You can omit the onion and instead use more scallion/green onion or spring onions. Spring onions are the ideal flavor for the ackees. If you must use regular onions, do so sparingly, for onions are sweet.
- If fresh ackee is not available where you live, you can substitute canned ackee. When using the canned variety, be sure to drain completely in a colander for at least half an hour. If you have a spray nozzle in your sink, spray a little hot water over it (not too much), and let it drain thoroughly. This will help reduce some of the tin flavor that canned foods often have.
- Don't boil the ackee with thyme—or don't use thyme at all. Thyme has a very strong flavor that will detract from, rather than enhance, the natural flavor of the ackee. Remember that ackee is a fruit; it requires only simple ingredients to enhance it.
- Don't cook tomatoes with your ackees. The acid from the tomatoes as they cook will negatively impact the ackees. If you must have tomatoes with your meal, add them as a side dish and not as a part of the main entree.
- Don't add sweet peppers to your ackee. Even though it looks good, sweet pepper sweat, which causes the ackee to gather moisture. We don't want ackee gravy! Another reason to skip the sweet pepper is that they have a sweet flavor, which detracts from the natural flavor of the dish.
- Avoid using powder seasonings. Fresh is best!
- Don't use butter with this dish. I know in some countries cooking with butter is the norm, but trust me. You can't get a better flavor than with coconut or vegetable oil.
- Don't over-cook or under-cook the ackee. Make sure the fruit is tender, not raw, when it's done.
Jamaican Mother's Recipe Video
Comment on Video
Although Jamaican Mother uses a couple of different ingredients than I do (for example, she uses tomatoes, which I do not recommend), her recipe is otherwise reasonably similar to mine.
You will also note that she serves her completed dish with fried dumplings, which is indeed a very popular and authentic accompaniment!