Ackee and Saltfish: Breakfast in Jamaica
When I was about eight years old I became fully convinced that I was actually an orphan, abandoned by the gypsies, whom my ‘parents’ had taken in – this, of course, being despite all evidence to the contrary, including a plethora of photographic documentation from the time that I was a bun in my mother’s oven and onwards after I was fully baked. My current theory is that perhaps I just have a low grade version of multiple personality disorder – or a severe hormone imbalance. And possibly scurvy, my gums were itchy this morning.
But back to the multiple personalities. I’ve tried to explain this to Mike before, but there are certain times when I swear I’m compelled by forces beyond my will, which trick or coerce me into doing all manner of very strange things. One of the personalities, who I have dubbed Mathilda the Bag Lady (try not to approach her from the left or make any sudden movements), often rears her hoary and balding head when I’m at the grocery store. Un-labelled tins for 45¢ each? Excellent, and seven of them are greedily scooped into my cart, elbows out to protect the stash from possible competition, before I have a chance to realize what just happened. If Mathilda was the laughing kind, she would cackle at my confusion…but Mathilda doesn’t laugh. I don’t think she knows how.
Then there’s the little fella, Pilfering Puck. He’s very sneaky indeed. If he wasn’t the product of my misfiring synapses it would be much easier to keep an eye on that guy. I am completely convinced that Pilfering Puck is the one who randomly throws jars and boxes into my cart as I move through the aisles. By the time that I get to the checkout I’m sure that he’s gleefully clapping his hands as he hops around, knowing that my 5 minute stop to buy milk just ended up being a surprisingly expensive endeavor with a variety of strange and foreign items that I certainly didn’t know that I wanted until that point. Pilfering Puck is going to bankrupt me one day, unless Moralistic Mary gets her hands on him first…..
A few weeks ago, Mathilda the Bag Lady and Pilfering Puck must have been boxing in my brain, because I came home with 4 bags of No Name potato chips that were on clearance (damn that Mathilda!), a stack of dented tuna (her again), and four boxes of off-brand crackers which may or may not be past their prime. Pilfering Puck must have been getting rather irritable that Mathilda was getting so much air time, because nestled in the bottom of one of the eco-friendly reusable bags (thank you Simian the Aging Hippie!) was a can of ackee. What? Ackees….in saltwater. When I got home, Mike peered nervously down at the can before giving me a rigid and accusatory glare. I tried explaining to him that it really wasn’t me, I didn’t mean to, I don’t even remember doing it, maybe it just dropped in by chance or fell off the shelf as I was walking by……..
The good news is that Puck actually found us a ringer this time. After all, Mike and I were planning to spend the next weekend at home pretending to be in Jamaica! And, fortuitously enough, Ackee and Saltfish is considered by many to be the national breakfast dish of Jamaica – and ackee is the national fruit! How perfect is that? I’d ask Mike to apologize to Puck, but I don’t think it would go over so well.
So let’s talk about ackee, because it’s not really a common ingredient in the West. Ackee is a tree-borne fruit which grown in moderately large, red, firm shells. It is similar to lychee in that aspect, as well as the interior whereby the ackee fruit surrounds large, hard, oblong black stones. When the ackee is ripe, the fruit bursts open to expose the three large black seeds and the creamy yellow flesh surrounding them.
The trick to ackee, which is also a main reason in why it’s not commonly found outside of the Caribbean or West Indian markets, is that it needs to be harvested at just the right time. Say you had an ackee tree growing in your back yard, and the fruits were getting so large and red and luscious looking! They must be almost ripe. If you were to just pluck one from the tree and taste it, just to see….well, you would die. Maybe. You see, ackee may be delicious but it’s also highly poisonous when harvested improperly. As the fruit matures it loses that toxicity and instead becomes dreamily mild, nutty, creamy and delectable. When the ackee is fully ripe and splits open, you know that it’s finally edible. As Bob Marley meant to say, “No poison, no cry”.
Ackee is technically a fruit, but in Jamaican and West Indian cuisine it tends to be used more like a vegetable. The colour is a light, pale yellow and the flesh has a consistency that’s surprisingly similar to perfectly cooked scrambled eggs – which sounds alarming, but it’s not. Really. It’s good. I promise.
Ackee and Saltfish
Serves 4-6, depending on how much dark rum was drunk the night before
- 450 g salt cod (2 filets) *
- 2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- 1 yellow onion
- 1/4 scotch bonnet pepper **
- 1 red pepper
- 2 ripe tomatoes
- 2 tsp thyme
- 1 medium can (540 mL) Ackee
- freshly ground pepper
* Dried, salted cod is the traditional choice for the salt fish. You don’t need any special Caribbean salt cod (if there is such a thing). The same bag/flat which is sold on the counter beside the fresh fish in your grocery store will do just fine. If you choose to use another kind of dried, salted fish, just make sure that it is thick and hardy so that it can stand up to the cooking. Oh, and salt fish is salty. I know, pretty obvious, right? But seriously, you’ll want to soak and boil the filets before adding them to the dish, because you really need to remove as much salt as possible.
** If you can’t find scotch bonnets (also sometimes called “Jamaican Hot Peppers”), a habanero will do the trick in a pinch. But really, if you can find canned ackee then you can probably find scotch bonnets.
Ah, the ackee. Doesn’t it look pretty in the picture? Fresh, ripe ackee fruits are absolutely stunning…and overtly sexual looking, but that’s half the charm.
Soak the saltfish in cold water, changing the water periodically, for at least 4 hours or overnight.
After the salt fish has soaked, put it in a pot full of fresh cold water and bring this up to a rolling boil. Let the fish cook for 15 minutes before taking it out and draining it.
Do a thorough examination of the fish and remove any pin-bones that might be hiding in the flesh, all sneaky like. Chop the fish up into a relatively large dice, about 1/2 inch chunks.
Chop the onion and finely (FINELY!) mince the 1/4 scotch bonnet pepper. Oh, and you might want to wear gloves when you do this…or don’t touch your eyes for the rest of the day. Just saying. Not that I’ve been punished by experience, or anything.
Chop the tomatoes and red pepper into a 1/4 inch dice.
In a large skillet with high sides, heat up the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and scotch bonnet dice, and let this cook for 5 minutes or so until the onions start to become translucent.
Add the saltfish chunks, tomatoes, peppers and dried thyme to the pan. Let this simmer away on medium heat….and pardon the next two steamy pictures.
The tomatoes and peppers will release a lot of liquid into the pan, and after about 5 minutes it will start to look soupy. This is good! Don’t forget to stir intermittently so that it doesn’t burn.
After 10 – 15 minutes most of that liquid will have evaporated away, leaving an intensely flavorful and succulent hash of ingredients in it’s wake.
When the contents of your pan look dry, for the most part, drain the can of ackee and add it to the milieu. Give this a careful stir to avoid breaking up the ackee too much, and let it cook together for only another minute or two until the ackee is heated through.
Season the dish with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Ackee is normally packed in salt water, and with the saltfish you likely don’t need any more salt. However, I won’t stop you if you feel compelled to add more, as long as it comes after tasting everything together.
The dish of Ackee and Saltfish is often served with boiled or fried potatoes, yams, or bananas. My personal weakness is for lightly salted fried bananas.
This tropical brunch (or breakfast, if you’re an early riser) is such a lovely balance of flavor and texture. The acidity of the tomatoes, slight heat from the peppers, salty fish, earthy thyme, creamy ackee….sigh. If anything can get me out of bed and ready to face the world on a February morning, this is it.
If we had really been in Jamaica, I like to think that this plate would have been served to me by a charming young man with a killer smile, who would jovially bring me my breakfst whilst pouring out another steaming mug of rich, dark coffee – and I’m pretty sure that I heard him whistling earlier, that was nice. And I would be sitting on an outdoor terrace. The weather would be perfect, of course, and my greatest concern would be trying to figure out which bathing suit to wear down to the beach later on.
However, in the absence of a tropical getaway, we found that tuning in to a local reggae radio station, cranking up the heat in the house, and dining in shorts and sarongs – that was pretty nice too.