The Jamaican ackee fruit is the national fruit of the island of Jamaica. When it is combined with saltfish (codfish) it becomes Jamaica's national dish. This is a popular meal and loved by both Jamaicans and tourists alike.
The consumption of Jamaica saltfish started hundreds of years ago when slave owners saw it as a cheap protein rich food for the slaves on the plantation. They purcgased the lower grade codfish from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in exchange for rum and molasses. Over a period of time it evolved to become a main food ingredient.
Majority of the saltfish sold in the island is pollock saiteh or hake caught in North Atlantic. Preserved by salting and drying, its long shelf life and resilience to warmer climate aided in its popularity. The status of saltfish has changed over the years from being cheap to being an exclusive ingredients.
Jamaican ackee is known in Spanish as akí, seso or vegetal. In French as aki, arbre or fricassee. Ackee was introduced to Jamaica from West Africa in the 18th, probably transported in a slave ship; its African name isn Akye fufo. The plant was further named Blighia sapida in honor of Captain William Bligh who took samples to Kew in 1793. Jamaican ackee trees are found across the island of Jamaica but the main producing areas are located in Clarendon and St Elizabeth. There are two bearing seasons: between January to March and June to August.
The large Jamaican ackee tree can grow up to 60 feet (18 m); it is densely branched and symmetrical, with a smooth gray bark. At maturity the leaves are at 9-15 inches (23-38 cm) in length, alternate, compound, with 3-5 pairs of glossy leaflets. The flowers are greenish and small. The fruit is a red, yellow or orange capsule, 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) long, with 3 cream colored arils, each tipped with a black seed. Seeds, cuttings or grafting, propagate Jamaican ackee. It prefers fertile soils and full sun, from sea level to 3,000 feet (914 m) elevation. Seedling trees begins fruiting at about 4 years, while grafted trees produce fruit in 1-2 years. Fruiting may occur throughout the year, but mainly in December through May in the Northern Hemisphere.
The fruit turns red on reaching maturity and splits open with continued exposure to the sun. The mature fruit splits open along 3 sutures exposing the 3 large, shiny, black seeds attached to a white or milky-white aril. The firm and oily aril is the edible portion and is consumed fresh or is cooked and used as a vegetable. The immature and over mature fruit should not be eaten as it may be toxic.
Two peptides that proved to be toxic to animals have been isolated from unripe seeds of the akee. One of these, hypoglycemic A, also occurs in the edible portion, the concentration being particularly high when the aril is not fully ripe. Only naturally opened fruits should be eaten, and care should be taken to remove the pink or purplish membrane near the seed. The outer rind of the fruit, the pink membrane under the seeds and the seeds contain hypoglycins, which are toxic and can be fatal.
The ackee skin or pod is used to make natural soap. The wood is termite resistant, and may be used in the construction of different articles. The tree is also planted as an ornamental. Seed extracts are used in the treatment of parasites. The ripe fruit is consumed to lower fever and to control dysentery. A poultice of crushed ackee leaves is applied to the forehead to alleviate headaches, and to the skin to heal ulcers.
The canned product is exported to ethnic markets worldwide and continues to be enjoyed by both visitors to the island and Jamaicans residing overseas. The annual production is valued at over $13 million (USD). Canned Jamaican ackee is exported primarily to the United Kingdom and Canada. Importation of Jamaican ackee to the United States was prohibited from 1973 to 2000, but is now permitted. The Jamaican ackee is more widely grown in Jamaica than anywhere else in the Western hemisphere.
The ackee being the national dish is available at any local restaurant as a breakfast item.
Recipe for Ackee and Saltfish
To prepare the dish, salt cod is sautéed with boiled ackee, onions, Scotch Bonnet peppers, tomatoes and spices. It is usually served as breakfast or dinner alongside breadfruit, hard dough bread, dumplings, fried plantain, or boiled green bananas. Ackee and Saltfish can also be eaten with rice and peas or plain white rice.
½-pound salt fish
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small sweet pepper (yellow/red or green), julienned
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon scotch bonnet pepper, chopped finely (omit if you don’t want the dish spicy)
2 stalks scallion, chopped
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Put saltfish to soak in cold water for about 1 hour.
Pour off water; add fresh water and boil until tender.
De-bone and flake the saltfish.
Heat oil and sauté onion, garlic, scallions, tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper and sweet pepper until tender, about five to six minutes.
Add flaked saltfish, fresh or canned ackee and black pepper.
Toss lightly; cover and allow to stand over low heat for about 2 minutes.