Seedlings from the ackee tree were brought from West Africa along with slaves in the early 1700’s. Every Jamaican knows that ackee can be poisonous; never pick the fruit before the pods fully open on the tree.
I’ve never been poisoned by ackee. Growing up, I was a willful child, but I did pay attention when my grandmother was teaching me how to prepare it. We would sit on the verandah with the basket between us, filled to the brim with bright orange pods. As she plucked the ripe ackee arils from the pod, I would use a small knife to remove the shiny black seed.
Grandma loved to gossip, and as we worked she would tell stories of people who had been poisoned by ackee. She would always end by pointing a finger, warning, “Jomo, don’t forget to tek out the red membrane; is poison, yuh know.” Eventually the creamy yellow arils would fill the plastic container on my knees, and we would head to the kitchen to boil them.
Ackee, breadfruit, and salted codfish are all transplants that traveled along slave routes in the heyday of European colonialism. Both plants adapted well to Jamaican soil and flourished in our tropical climate. As for salted codfish, it was a staple of any oceangoing fleet of that time –especially the British colonists who settled the Caribbean.
Establishing vast sugarcane plantations, colonists bought slaves from West Africa to work the land. The slaves were forced to adapt to their new surroundings and gradually learned to incorporate local fruits, ground provisions and vegetables into their cook pots. Ackee & Saltfish (recipe below) has become intertwined in Jamaican food lore and culture.
My grandmother’s house has a huge breadfruit tree in the backyard. Growing up I’ve climbed that tree many times, scrambling from branch to branch, shouting and laughing in play with my brother. The breadfruit tree was center stage of our imaginary world, filled with swashbuckling pirates and rocket ships blasting off into space. We were explorers and space cowboys, born to be wild.
Despite the unwanted attention, our rough treatment and branch tearing, the tree bore fruit. Back then, I was too young to appreciate eating food picked from my own backyard and would have much preferred a bowl of Fruit Loops. My finicky eating habits didn’t faze Grandma; I was forced to eat breadfruit boiled in chicken foot soup on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings, I’d eat Ackee & Saltfish withroasted breadfruit, each slice smeared with warm butter or deep fried and sprinkled with salt.
Captain Bligh brought breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica in 1793. Originally it was meant to feed slaves, but they did not like the sweet taste. For many years breadfruit trees grew wild, and the fruit was used to feed hogs. Eventually the fruit was incorporated into local diets, and breadfruit has become a staple protein food ever since.Weighing between two and six pounds, breadfruit can grow as large as volleyballs. Between May and August, the tree produces copious amounts of the bright green fruit.
My mom, who owns a small bakery in Port Maria, St. Mary, will tell you that there are two times of the year when bread does not sell well. Breadfruit season (May- August), and mango season ( May to July). It’s easy to understand why: mango, ackee, and breadfruit trees are common sights in both urban and rural Jamaican yards. Those without a tree need not worry; friends and neighbors are always willing to share whatever extra their households cannot consume.
An ackee or breadfruit tree laden with fruit is a sight to behold. It grows in your backyard, it grows wild, and it’s everywhere. With nature’s bounty on display and free, who wants to pay for bread? Most Jamaicans would rather eat juicy ripe mangoes for lunch and delicious roast or fried breadfruit for dinner.
These two breadfruit recipes were adapted from The Hotel Mocking Bird Hill blog. Recipes and posts by Barbara Walker provide an insightful look into Jamaican cuisine.
Stuffed Roasted Breadfruit
Take one medium breadfruit and score around the stem, pulling the stem out of the breadfruit.
Fill the cavity in the breadfruit with Ackee and Salt Fish (recipe below), or spinach and feta, sundried tomatoes (diced) and feta cheese.
You then take the heart of the breadfruit that you have cut out with the stem and cut it leaving only enough to cover the top of the stuffed cavity. Brush the breadfruit with olive oil and bake in 350 degree pre-heated oven for 35 -45 minutes or until a skewer or knife inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.
Peel the roasted breadfruit and then split it in half, using the halved breadfruit as bowls for the filling. Slice like potato wedges and serve with a mixed green salad.
Breadfruit FuFu (recipe)
(For anyone who likes Hawaiian Poi using Taro – this is very similar)
Using a coal stove or BBQ, roast the breadfruit at medium heat, until a skewer or knife inserted into the centre, comes out clean. The breadfruit must be turned often during roasting.
If using an oven, lightly brush the breadfruit with coconut oil and bake at 350 degrees for 35 -45 minutes, or until a knife or skewer inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.
Peel the roasted breadfruit and remove its core. Cut in small cubes and place cubes in mortar. Pound with a pestle until it becomes like a soft dough (you can use an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook).
Break into small pieces and add to soup or stews.
Note: After roasting and peeling the breadfruit it is ready to be used as an aside in sliced form. As the breadfruit cools, it becomes quite dense so, a good option at this point is to fry the slices and use as a side dish.
I’ve made ackee and saltfish several times since I’ve migrated to the United States. All the ingredients can be bought at the farmers’ market or in the Caribbean food section of a Wal-Mart, Publix or Kroger supermarket.
I use canned ackees, and when I’m finished I make a plate and eat breakfast without much fanfare, in solitary silence. I know in my heart that it will never taste the same, but it’s my way of reconnecting with my culture – a Jamaican chef cooking regional American cuisine.
I cannot reproduce the creaking of the wooden floor, or the stillness of a household in slumber. My hands look nothing like my grandmothers, dicing onions, tomatoes and scotch bonnet pepper. In my apartment, the hood vent above the stove siphons off the aroma of coconut oil and the stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and thyme, bubbling in fat.
And where is the smell of breadfruit roasting in a coal pot? These intrinsic memories from my past are impossible to duplicate in an apartment with electric burners and air-conditioned “atmosphere.”
Instead, I’ll wait for Jamaica. I’ll go home to my grandmother, in her small house close to the sea. The car turns down the narrow lane leading to her house, and then stops at her gate. There, I’ll look forward to my first meal; I will eat whatever she chooses to cook. I can see her sitting on the verandah, waiting for me. There is a smile on her face, and I tumble out the car and rush to hug her. I’m remembering Ackee & Saltfish with roast breadfruit as it’s supposed to be. Breakfast from my childhood.
Ackee & Saltfish
½ lb salted codfish (saltfish)
1 lb fresh ackee (cleaned and deveined)
½ small Spanish onion (julienne)
1 scotch bonnet pepper (leave the pepper whole, for more heat slice the pepper into rounds, discard the seeds)
2 Roma tomatoes (diced)
4 sprigs of thyme
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup of good coconut oil
You can let the codfish soak in water overnight, but I always forget, so this is what I do: in a pot of cold water bring the codfish to a boil. Drain the water and repeat the process two more times. Taste the codfish; it should be salty, but not too much. Two birds with one stone: now the codfish has been cooked and the excess salt has been removed.
Remove the bones from the codfish, take the skin off if there is any, and flake the fish into small pieces. Not too small but not too large either –imagine stripping paint from a wall.
This is not a canned ackee recipe, so wait until you have the opportunity to use fresh ackees. Now it’s time to clean and cook the ackee. Use a small knife to cut off the black seeds, and then use your fingers to remove the red membrane lining the belly of each aril. Clean them well. Remember the red membranes are toxic, so have a care. Cook the ackees in a pot of salted boiling water, until firm but tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a hot sauté pan add coconut oil. Make sure the pan is hot, then add the onions, let sizzle for a minute. Add the diced tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper and thyme and let cook for another minute. Add the saltfish and stir together. Finally add the ackee, toss gently until heated through. Finish with a pinch of black pepper. And it is done!