Ackee and saltfish is synonymous with Jamaica, as entwined with the national identity as reggae or cricket. Spiked with herbs and peppers and accompanied by rich Caribbean trimmings like plantains and breadfruit, it pays testimony to the country’s tempestuous history and multiracial roots. The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt reputedly has it for breakfast. But how did a meal that combines a preserved North Atlantic fish and a potentially toxic West African fruit become Jamaica’s national dish?
The answer is embedded in the country’s history of slavery. Ackee is a voluptuous, red-skinned fruit related to the lychee that is native to Ghana. Saltfish originates in the choppy seas of Northern Europe and Eastern Canada. The ingredients’ subsequent marriage in the kitchens and restaurants of Jamaica was a direct result of the triangular slave trade between Britain, West Africa and its Caribbean colonies in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
“Ackee was brought to the island, probably on a slave ship from West Africa, sometime in the mid-1700s,” explained Janet Crick, director of Jamaica Culinary Tours in Falmouth on the island’s north coast. “Its name is derived from the original name of the fruit in the Ghanaian Twi language: ankye. Interestingly, its scientific name Blighia Sapida was accorded in 1806 in honour of Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), who took the plant from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, in 1793. Prior to this, the ackee was unknown to science.”
The fruit adapted well to Jamaica’s tropical climate and quickly flourished. These days, you’ll see broad, dense ackee trees embellishing the landscape everywhere from Montego Bay’s Hip Strip to the gardens of Goldeneye, the former estate of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
Saltfish (traditionally cod) is caught and prepared in the North Atlantic. In the days before freezers and refrigerators, drying and salting was the main means of preserving fish. By the mid-17th Century, it became economically viable to transport large quantities of salted cod from Nova Scotia in Canada to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, where it was traded for rum, sugar and molasses.
That both foods became staples in colonial Jamaica was not surprising. Non-perishable saltfish is inexpensive, easy to store and high in protein. Ackee is loaded with fibre, protein and vitamin C. In Jamaica’s brutal slave society, the foodstuffs made a cheap and nutritious repast for enslaved people on the country’s hot, humid sugar plantations. There is no record of when the two ingredients were first combined in one dish; but at some point over the last century, a definitive recipe emerged.
“First you boil the ackee and saltfish together for around 20 minutes before draining and removing any fish bones,” explained Cuthbert Binns, executive chef at Pelican Grill, a longstanding restaurant on Montego Bay’s Hip Strip. “In this way the ackee absorbs some of the salt.”
“Next, you sauté onions, tomatoes, scallions and Scotch bonnet peppers in a separate pan. Add the boiled ackee and saltfish, sprinkle with a little thyme and black pepper and it’s ready to serve.”
Sides can vary, but the standards, according to Cuthbert, are roasted breadfruit, boiled green banana, johnnycake (deep-fried dumplings) and pan-fried plantain.
When cooked, the spongey ackee flesh turns from beige to buttery yellow. Its mild creamy flavour perfectly balances the sharp saltiness of the fish. Although technically classified as a fruit, ackee is treated more like a vegetable in the Jamaican kitchen. Tourists often mistake it for scrambled eggs.
Ackee and saltfish is traditionally consumed for breakfast or brunch, and Cuthbert estimates his kitchen dispenses around 50 servings per day. As an imaginative spin-off, the Pelican Grill also offers the concoction as a dinner appetizer spooned over a slice of bammy (cassava flatbread). Shop around and you’re likely to encounter vegan-friendly “virgin ackee”, while meat variants substitute the fish with salt-cured “corned pork”.
You don’t have to wander far from the Pelican Grill to find an ackee tree. Several of the fragrant evergreens grow wild on the road to Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport. Ackee can be harvested year-round. “When I was young, we had two ackee trees in our yard,” recounted Cuthbert. “Some months, one tree would yield fruit while the other remained unproductive. Then they would switch over. It was only during the summer months that both trees were productive.”
Despite its vivid vermillion skin, ackee has a dark side: the fruit is toxic when unripe. Eating it before it is mature induces what is known as Jamaican vomiting sickness, which, on rare occasions, can be fatal. Time Magazine has listed ackee as one of the world’s 10 most dangerous foods. As a result, its trade is carefully controlled. In 1973, the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) banned the importation of ackee into the US. After a protracted lobbying campaign by the Jamaica Ackee Task Force, the ban was partially lifted in 2000, allowing canned or frozen ackee to be imported as long as it meets tight FDA regulations.
For Jamaicans, there are no such restrictions. Ackee is often sold by the roadside on makeshift tables mere metres from its mother tree. “It is safe to pick ackee when the fruit has opened naturally and you can see the yellow pods inside without forcing the fruit open,” said Crick. “Ackee contains a toxic gas, hypoglycin A, which is released when the red fruit pops open, meaning it is mature and ready for consumption.”
For Jamaican food aficionados, the nuances go further. There are two different types of ackee – cheese and butter – each with their culinary merits. “The flesh of butter ackee has a richer, more yellow colour,” said Crick. “It boils quickly and mashes or disintegrates very easily when cooked. By contrast, cheese ackee is a lighter pale colour and much firmer in texture, causing it to stand up more readily to the cooking process.”
Ackee’s poisonous image has meant its adoption as a food delicacy outside Jamaica has been limited. In West Africa, the seeds and pods are used to make soap. In Haiti, food shortages have sometimes led to illnesses and deaths after people have eaten unripe ackee.
Ackee has a dark side: the fruit is toxic when unripe
For the Jamaican diaspora, getting fresh ackee is difficult. Most expats have to settle for the canned variety, an adequate if unspectacular substitute akin to eating tinned peaches rather than juicy market fruit. Saltfish is similarly variable. These days it is more likely to come from Norway or Guyana than Nova Scotia. While cod is still the default, depleted stocks in recent years means that other white fish such as tilapia is sometimes used.
For the real breakfast deal, Crick says an on-island experience is always better than eating abroad, not just because the ackee’s fresh, but because home-grown Scotch bonnet peppers and herbs ensure superior seasoning. Her favourite haunts are a little cookshop called Yash Bowl in her home base of Falmouth; the restaurant at the Sandy Haven Boutique hotel in Negril; and Deliworks at Sovereign Shopping Centre in the capital Kingston.
Wherever you eat it, you are tasting a piece of Jamaica’s soul. Ackee and saltfish may have its roots in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, but the contemporary dish, marinated for years in Jamaica’s cultural melting pot, perfectly encapsulates a country whose motto is “Out of many, one people”.
Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.