Ackee was brought to Jamaica around the 18th century and then taken to England by Captain Bligh, of mutiny and breadfruit fame, hence its scientific name of Blighia Sapida.
Since its introduction to Jamaica, it has been spread to a lesser extent to other Caribbean islands, including Cayman, yet it remains intrinsically Jamaican, being both the national fruit as well as an ingredient in the national dish – ackee and saltfish.
The ackee tree grows to around 40 feet in height and sprouts leaves 6 to 12 inches long, and has fragrant greenish-white flowers; the fruit is 3 to 4 inches long and leathery in appearance. When ripe, the yellow fruit turns slightly red and the rind splits open to reveal shiny black seeds nestled in the edible creamy white arils, or more colloquially – vegetable brains. When unripe, the fruit contains toxic amino acids called hypoglycin A and B, and, therefore, it should only be eaten after it has split apart naturally, before it gets soft and old. There are well-documented cases of sickness and death in the early 20th century due to people eating it either when unripe or old. However, thanks to education and proper harvesting, this is no longer a widespread problem.
Prepared properly, ackee is wholesome and nutritious. One hundred grams of canned and drained ackee contains 2.9 grams protein, 15.2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 grams cholesterol and 151 calories. It is a high-fat fruit but a good source of beneficial fats such as linoleic, palmitic and stearic acids. It also contains 35 mg of calcium per 100 grams of fruit, as well as 270 mg potassium, iron and vitamin C.
How to eat
When cooked, ackee resembles scrambled eggs and has a delicate flavor. It is usually eaten in a breakfast dish with saltfish. However, there are many other lesser known methods of using the fruit, either fresh or canned. It can be served as a fried accompaniment, with bacon, and has even been used by some adventurous chefs as an ingredient in desserts. Journey’s End Wine Company in Jamaica has even branched out by using it to make wine. The most popular and best-loved recipe is, of course, ackee and saltfish. This recipe, from “Classic Jamaican Cuisine” by James Newton, is simple yet tasty.
Ackee and saltfish
Ingredients to serve 4
- 1 can (12 oz) or 1 dozen fresh ackees, if available and cleaned
- ½ lb salted codfish
- 1 medium onion
- ½ tsp of black pepper
- 3 tbsp butter
- ½ of a hot chili pepper (ideally Scotch Bonnet)
- 1 sweet pepper
- 1 chopped tomato
- 1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme
- Cover the saltfish in cold water. Let soak overnight (minimum 8 hours), changing the water several times to remove most of the salt.
- Bring a pan of cold water to boil and gently simmer the fish for 20 minutes or until tender.
- Chop the onion, sweet pepper, chili pepper and tomato.
- Remove the fish from water and allow to cool.
- Remove all of the bones and skin then flake the flesh of the fish.
- Melt the butter in a frying pan and stir-fry the onion, black pepper, sweet pepper, chili and thyme for about 3 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and flaked fish and stir-fry for another 10 minutes. Add the ackee and cook until hot throughout. Stir gently to avoid breaking-up the ackee.
Serve with yam, green banana, fried dumplings and potato, if desired.