Melissa Thompson Shares the Story of Ackee and Saltfish
In her beautiful new cookbook and food memoir Motherland, Melissa Thompson tells the history of Jamaica through food, exploring and celebrating the many cultural influences that have shaped this delicious cuisine. In this exclusive piece, the author discusses Jamaica’s national dish - ackee and saltfish - its history, significance, and the special memories it holds for her, as well as sharing the recipe from her new book.
Ackee and saltfish. Three words that roll off the tongue; a Ronseal description of a dish that sounds simple but brings so much delight.
To me it is a dish where the sum is greater than the parts. Ackee is great and saltfish is delicious but together? They’re stratospheric.
A lot of food is transportative, and a taste or even a sniff can take us back to a specific moment or a place in time.
This dish takes me back to the family home in Weymouth. Dad stood over the cooker frying off onions, peppers and tomatoes. Their lovely smell fighting for dominance with the unmistakable - and, if I’m honest, not very pleasant - smell of saltfish being boiled off before the flesh is flaked apart. The tin of ackee being opened, ready to be added at the very last minute to protect the structural integrity of the pale yellow flesh that will collapse into mush at the merest hint of pressure from a wooden spoon
Mum mixing flour and cornmeal for dumplings, and then peeling plantain to be sliced lengthways to be fried off.
And me watching excitedly in anticipation of all these separate endeavours coming together in perfect harmony on my plate. I’d tear pieces of dumpling to scoop up the ackee and saltfish, not stopping until my plate was wiped clean of sauce and my belly was full.
It is a scene so clear in my mind but it wasn’t a regular occurrence. It relied on access to the core ingredients, which in 1980s south Dorset was no mean feat. There might have been saltfish somewhere, but plantain and ackee had to wait for trips to London or to visit Dad’s family in Darlington. There, we’d stock up on those precious ingredients and take them home to be rationed, along with bottles of concentrated ginger beer mix, goat meat for the freezer, Nurishment (CORRECT) for carrot juice and occasionally, if we were lucky, sugarcane.
As I got older, and more interested in food and what it tells us about history and people, my fascination about ackee and saltfish took a new direction. How did those two ingredients come together, in a meal so revered it became Jamaica’s national dish?
That curiosity about this singular dish and Jamaican cuisine in general led to Motherland, my debut cookbook. It features recipes, including my ackee and saltfish, as well the history of the island told through food. Or you could say, a look at the food told through its history. The two are inextricably linked, each group of people who inhabited the island leaving its mark like a footprint left in freshly poured concrete.
Saltfish was a mainstay of life in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The preservation method extended the life of perishable goods and fish was best-suited to it, providing an endless supply of relatively cheap protein. Europe was a huge consumer of it, and as Europeans set out to colonise the Americas, it became widely consumed there too.
In 1655 Britain overthrew the Spanish to take control of Jamaica. They set about implementing a system of chattel slavery on the island, and bringing thousands of enslaved men, women and children from West and Central Africa to the Americas. Of all islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica would receive more people than any other island - more than 600,000.
Slavery was a state-sanctioned enterprise, that involved British aristocracy as well as the Royal Family. The Triangular Trade Route saw ships leave major ports such as Bristol and Liverpool and set sail for the West African coast where people who had been kidnapped would be bartered and sold into enslavement. They would be loaded into ships in horrendous conditions and transported to the Americas where they would be forced to work in a brutal system to enrich their European masters. Goods such as cotton, tobacco and foods would be transported back to England.
Saltfish would be brought to the Caribbean and given to the enslaved population as part of their rations. But the quality of the saltifsh there was so poor - in some cases rancid - it got its own nickname, West India Cure.
Ackee also came to Jamaica as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Ackee is native to West Africa, and legend has it that some people would wear necklaces made of the shiny black seeds that sit within the edible ackee flesh as a sort of talisman.
But officially, it is recorded as arriving in Jamaica in 1778. A catalogue from 1794 states: ‘This plant was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year very large quantities of fruit; several gentlemen are now encouraging the propagation of it.’
Certainly, ackee was a useful food source. It has two seasons and grows with little encouragement on trees that become laden with the orange-red fruits. The only sticking point was the danger posed by eating the unripe pods - they have to open naturally, otherwise they have potentially fatal levels of toxins.
At some point, probably in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, the two ingredients were put together in the one dish. It was likely down to convenience, as many abundant foods would have been joined. It could be cooked in one pot too, which made it easier for those forced to work up to 20 hours per day.
Ackee and saltfish is a pairing that endured, likely because of how well it worked.
Jamaica’s cuisine is an incredible testament to the creativity and resilience of those people brought to the island against their will and subjected to inhumane conditions to enrich others. Like jerk, escovitch fish and bammy, curry goat and oxtail, they are a lasting legacy of the island's remarkable history and its patchwork of people through time.
It is these people I remember during Black HIstory Month. Those who remain nameless because their identity was stripped away the moment they were sold into enslavement, but whose ingenuity and legacy outlived those that sought to subjugate them.
ACKEE & SALTFISH
225g saltfish, rinsed and soaked overnight (see page 18)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1⁄2 onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/3–1 Scotch bonnet, deseeded and finely chopped, to taste
2 medium tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
leaves from 3 thyme sprigs
540g can of ackee, drained
To serve (optional)
Seasoned Callaloo and Fried Dumplings or Festival (see pages 111, 224 and 223)
Put the saltfish in a pan of water and bring it to the boil. Simmer until the fish is cooked through and soft; the time this takes will vary depending on the type of
fish, so expect anything from 8 up to 20 minutes. Once cooked, drain. When it is cool, break the fish into smaller pieces, checking for bones and removing them as you go and removing the skin as well.
Pour the oil into a frying pan and fry the onion, red pepper, garlic and Scotch bonnet over a medium heat until they soften, without letting them colour; 8–10 minutes.
Add the saltfish, cook for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes, spring onions, thyme and measured water. Cook for a further 5–8 minutes until the tomatoes and spring onions soften.
Gently stir in the ackee, being careful not to break the curds up. Warm through for 2–3 minutes.
Serve with Seasoned Callaloo and Fried Dumplings or Festival, or other hard food.
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