Author's note: Thanks to the Jamaica Tourist Board, I recently had the chance to travel to Jamaica with a group of fellow journalists. We sampled all kinds of tasty foods, visited coffee and fruit plantations, and learned many things about the varied cuisine of the island.
The traditional Jamaican diet is a healthful one, full of the fresh fruits that thrive in the island's tropical climate; heavy on dark, iron-rich greens like callaloo; and often prepared using the oil from the coconuts that grow all over the country, a cooking fat that, once maligned, has now been shown to boost good cholesterol levels.
But there's one meal in the Jamaican diet that would be a stretch to call healthy, and that's breakfast. Because the country's traditional industries—agricultural production of sugar, bananas, coffee, and rum, and mining of bauxite, an alumnium ore—are fueled by manual labor, workers in these industries have long relied on a hearty, starch-heavy breakfast to power them through their work day.
The traditional breakfast, usually eaten at casual, inexpensive roadside establishments akin to diners, almost always consists of a few key elements: boiled yams and green, unripe banana; fried or roasted breadfruit, a starchy, savory fruit that has a fluffy texture similar to bread; and fried balls of white-flour dough called dumplings. Alongside these carbohydrate- and calorie-heavy staples, the breakfast plate features one or two protein-rich stewed or sauteed dishes: you might see, for example, mackerel fried with peppers and onions, or something called ackee and saltfish, known as the Jamaican national dish.
You can probably infer what saltfish is (it's dried, salted cod, a staple of coastal nations and elsewhere known as bacalao or morue), but ackee, a fruit that flourishes in the Caribbean, is little-known outside of that region of the world.
In fact, ackee has a long history in Jamaica, having been imported from West Africa, likely on a slave ship, before 1778. The fruit grows on a tree, forming inside bright orangey-pink pods around a shiny, jet-black seed, which is not eaten. The fruit's flesh is pale yellow when raw but turns bright yellow when exposed to heat, and the color is enhanced by spices, like turmeric, that are used in ackee's traditional preparation: the fruit is boiled and diced, then fried with sweet onions, fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, tomatoes, and additional spices such as black pepper and allspice. Rehydrated, drained salt cod is added to finish the dish.
So what does ackee taste like? It's completely unique. The fruit has a buttery, creamy texture and a mild taste that reminded me of hearts of palm. The saltfish in the dish plays off the mild fruit nicely, adding a saline tang.
One more fun fact about ackee? When the fruit is unripe, it's toxic. Ackee pods are filled with a poisonous gas called hypoglycin, which dissipates naturally when the fruit ripens and the pods open up like a flower. If an ackee pod is broken open prematurely, the fruit retains some of the toxin and can be fatal when eaten.
If you've tasted ackee here in the United States, you're likely eating the canned, exported product, which Jamaican plants ship all over the world. The flavor and texture is not quite the same as the real deal, but it makes a fine substitute should you want to try to fry up some ackee and saltfish at home.