I say it often: if you are going to date someone for their family’s native regional cuisine I would highly recommend considering Jamaican.
Bacon is sometimes added to transform ackee and saltfish into the perfect pan of breakfast. Otherwise, it makes a great dinner together with dumplings and other starchy goodies like green bananas, fried plantains or breadfruit… Jamaican cuisine has by far the best selection of boiled starchy things. We fried dumplings and plantains to go with our ackee and saltfish.
Ackees are members of the soapberry family and are native to Africa – an introduced species in Jamaica. The fruit are bell pepper-shaped with creamy, buttery flesh and giant, black pearl-like seeds. Raw ackees are the fugu of the fruit world, extremely toxic when not prepared properly – hence, “Jamaican vomiting sickness”. Only canned ackees are legal for importing into most non-West Indian markets.
Canned ackees can get quite expensive, and it’s one of the few West Indies ingredients that specialty stores don’t have the perplexing ability to sell cheaper than everyone else. More regular grocery stores are carrying it lately, and a can will normally run about $8 to $10. No worries, because Matt’s mom brought us some cans of it. She also brought us Caribbean johnnycake mix for the dumplings.
Prep-time on this dish is lengthy but not intensive – the fish is encrusted with salt and must be soaked overnight or at least for six hours, with the water being changed out two or three times.
The ackee’s flavor is very faint and not sweet at all, but more like a smooth, soft scrambled egg that’s quite tasty when smushed onto half a johnnycake. Peppers and fish make perfect comfort food, who knew?
That noise you hear is Matt bumping into me after he turns around to find me sneaking in a photo or two. He’s doing the cooking, but to be fair I rolled the dumpling dough into little balls.
Most of the ackee and saltfish recipes found online seem to be wrong (even Emeril’s!), according to the slew of Jamaican commenters shaming various recipes that use added aromatics and other ingredients that overpower the subtle ackee. This recipe is a hybrid of what Matt knows, recipes from Jamaican tourism sites and suggestions from those commenters.
We also went all out with our Jamaican dinner and picked up some kola champagne while Metro tries to impress us with its “Caribbeanfest”, offering bottles of tropical drinks for 50 cents – which of course, will be gone from the store next week. Kola champagne is similar to cream soda, with a delightful and intriguing soapy aftertaste not unlike Thrills gum.
For simplicity’s sake, here is the recipe link from which I derived my grocery shopping list for this dish that also comes with video instructions and photos. Try it. It. Was. Delicious.
Contributor Heather Rose is a freelance writer living in Toronto with her puppy, Bodie and boyfriend, Matt, one of whom enjoys her culinary experiments more than the other. She applies her life-long philosophy – “I did my best” – to all her recipes and cooking experiences. Check out her website at www.heatherrosewriting.com.