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.
Why It Works
- Soaking and boiling the salt cod in several changes of fresh water leeches salt from the fish and makes it palatable.
- Adding ackee right at the end of cooking and just warming it through ensure it will retain some texture.
- Yield:Serves 4
- Active time: 20 minutes
- Total time:20 minutes (plus 2 hours soaking and cooking time for salt cod)
- 8 ounces (225g) salt cod
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28g) diced yellow onion, from 1/4 onion
- 2 heaping tablespoons (1 ounce; 28g) diced bell pepper, from 1/2 bell pepper
- 1/2 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small tomato (about 2 ounces; 56g), cored and diced
- 1 scallion (10g), thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons (3g) fresh thyme leaves and tender stems, chopped
- One 18–20-ounce can ackee
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Sliced avocado, for serving
Rinse salt cod under cold running water until any salt on its surface is washed away. Transfer to a medium bowl and cover with fresh water. Soak at room temperature for 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate overnight. Drain salt cod, discard soaking water, transfer fish to a small saucepan, and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook until fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork, about 40 minutes. Taste, and if the cod is still too salty—it should have a similar salinity to bacon—drain and discard cooking water, return fish to saucepan, cover with a fresh change of water, and boil for an additional 20 minutes. Once the salt cod is cooked and seasoned to your liking, drain, and flake fish into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces, discarding any bones and silvery membranes. Set aside.
In a 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, bell pepper, Scotch bonnet, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the flaked salt cod and cook, stirring occasionally, until fish is heated through, about 5 minutes.
Add tomato, scallion, and thyme, stir to combine, and cook until vegetables are tender and mixture is aromatic, about 5 minutes.
Add ackee, stir gently to incorporate, taking care not to over-mix which can cause the ackee to become mushy, and cook until ackee is heated through, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately with sliced avocado alongside.