Ackee and Saltfish – Jamaica’s National Dish
Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, and Ackee and Saltfish is the Jamaica national dish. The ackee tree grows in various places in the world where it has many non-edible uses, but it appears to be eaten as food only in Jamaica.
Ackee trees originated from West Africa and came to Jamaica in the 1700s aboard slave ships. The botanical name is Blighia sapida, named for Captain William Bligh who introduced this strange plant to England in the 18th century.
The whole ackee fruit is not edible because the unripe fruit contains toxins. The outer skin of an ackee starts off as a yellowish-green color and turns red as it ripens. When ripe, the ackee breaks open naturally while still on the tree. Inside this unusual fruit are three very large shiny black seeds, each surrounded by a creamy yellow "aril" (almost like a fleshy bag covering each seed). These fleshy arils are the only part of the fruit you can eat.
If eaten before it has ripened, ackee is poisonous. It contains Hypoglycins A & B which can cause what is known as Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, a type of fatal hypoglycemia that triggers vomiting and seizures. This is quite rare, however, because Jamaicans know how to properly harvest and prepare ackee! And, in fact, ackee is very nutritious. It contains a lot of protein, unsaturated fats, and is rich in essential fatty acids, zinc and vitamin A.
Once ripe, the big shiny seeds are thrown away along with the outer part of the ackee. The remaining golden arils are then carefully cleaned, boiled and properly cooked. Usually you will find it sautéed with onions, tomatoes and dried, salted codfish to create Jamaica’s delicious national dish, Ackee and Saltfish. This is a Sunday breakfast favorite, often served with roasted breadfruit and, if you didn't know better, it looks almost like scrambled eggs on your plate!
If you just can’t get to Jamaica to enjoy this beloved delicacy, canned ackee is a major export of Jamaica, at more than US$10 million in value, and remains popular in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and wherever there are large communities of Jamaicans.
While U.S. imports were banned for many years, the FDA now certifies ackee processors and carefully inspects their final products. Jamaica's processing plants vigilantly monitor the quality, ripeness and hypoglycin levels of the fruit that they purchase from growers.
Today, Jamaica has competition from Mexico, Costa Rica, Florida, and other Caribbean islands that have recognized the nutritional value of the fruit as well as its mounting value as an export product. It doesn't taste like scrambled eggs, but ackee and saltfish is delicious!