Notes on Saltfish and Ackee

Saltfish and ackee is commonly recognised as Jamaica’s national dish. Yet how do we even begin to think and talk of nationhood in the case of a Caribbean island? And when does Jamaica become a nation? (​​bearing in mind Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962). As numerous Caribbean philosophers and poets have observed and Derek Walcott articulated:

“Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea
has locked them all. The sea is history.”

We cannot speak of the construction of a dish, without speaking of the construction of its culture; in the case of Jamaica this is the intersection of many peoples, geographies, it is a tidalectic of successive waves of colonial violence, countered by adaptive and resistances. Typically the primary ingredients of national dishes are local to its people, but cod does not swim in the Caribbean Sea and ackee is from the West coast of Africa. So we must look overseas to understand the dish before us.

By the European calendar, the arrival of Columbus on the island in 1494, was the death knell for its indigenous inhabitants, the Taino people (Spanish and Portugese Conquistadors bringing disease and war). This is parallel to the Europeans’ import of cod from the Atlantic,  bacalhau is the Portugese culinary term for dried and salted cod. Drying and salting are ancient preservation techniques that were invaluable prior to refrigeration.

From the 16th Century African slaves were brought to Jamaica and other parts of the Americas.  Most accounts of the history of ackee in Jamaica suggest its import from what we call Ghana in the 1700s by slavers as a form of sustenance for their workers. Could the Africans also have brought ackee seeds to Jamaica themselves? Captured African wove seeds and grains in their hair as a means of smuggling food and medicines from their homelands. The ackee, also known as acki, akee, or ackee apple (Blighia sapida), is part of the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family, so it’s close to the lychee. The cooler waters of Eastern Canada enabled the regular import of cod to the Caribbean for forced labourers. These two main ingredients meet and become entangled in Jamaica.

What was slave food has evolved into a prized dish. A staple in Jamaican households today and among the diaspora: cooked at home and served in Jamaican food spots across London and other cities with concentrations of Jamaicans. It is often a side dish, served with rice, dumplings (fried or boiled) or breadfruit. Aside from how it’s traditionally served I personally enjoy it on toast with scrambled egg or alternatively with pasta : ) My mother has also made vegan and vegetarian versions for my sister Kara, switching out the saltfish for mushrooms, or tofu.

Ingredients

2 Canned Ackee
1 lb Saltfish
1 Onions Sliced
1 Small tomato Diced
1 Sweet bell pepper Or ½ red and ½ green like I did
1 Stalk scallions Chopped
2 Sprig thyme
¼ Scotch bonnet pepper Seeds removed
½ tsp Black pepper
2 tbsp Cooking oil

Instructions

– Soak the saltfish for a minimum of two hours in cold water.Pour way the water.
– In a saucepan, place the saltfish and cover with fresh water. Put to boil on medium heat for 15 minutes.
– Removed from heat and pour away the hot water. Wash the fish in cold water to cool it.
– Remove the fish skin and debone the saltfish. Flake the saltfish and set aside.
– On medium fire, heat the oil in a cooking skillet. Add the onions, thyme, tomato, sweet pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, scallions and sauté for 3 minutes.
– Add the flaked saltfish and cook for another 3 minutes.
– Add the ackee, lower the heat and let it simmer for another 10-15 minutes
– Add the black pepper, turn the heat off and serve.

Workshop: Jamaican Cuisine Tasting Session together with artist and writer Harun Morrison, on 4th January, 2024 in the Fittja Kitchen at Botkyrka konsthall.