In Jonathan Escoffery’s story, “Under the Ackee Tree,” which appears in our Summer 2019 issue, the protagonist, homesick for Jamaica, attempts to grow an ackee tree in his Miami backyard. No amount of water or fertilizer will make the seeds sprout. After Hurricane Gilbert devastates the Caribbean, and all the phone lines back home go out, the protagonist sits his sons down at breakfast to:
try teach them them culture to make sure it survive. The tropical market on Colonial start carry canned ackee and green banana and salt cod, so you cook the boys ackee and saltfish and try explain why it Jamaica’ national dish. You see this here, you say. The ackee grow in a pod and it must open on it own or else the ackee poison you. You point to the picture on the can, so them can see how it grow, and it remind you that you never eat ackee out of no can before.
This summer, we mailed Escoffery three varieties of canned ackee (the only kind of ackee available in the U.S.) and asked him to conduct a taste test.
If you’ve ever spent time in Jamaica, you’ve likely had the opportunity to sample the island’s national dish, ackee and saltfish. Typically served at breakfast time, the ackee fruit is lightly boiled and paired with dehydrated salted cod, an assortment of onions and peppers, including scotch bonnet, and rounded out with sides of boiled green banana, dumplings (or spinners as they’re called in Jamaica), and johnnycakes. If you order ackee and saltfish over the counter at a restaurant in Brooklyn or Hartford or Miami, these sides will likely be referred to simply as food, as in, You wan’ food wit’ that? If asked this question, avoid dwelling on the confusion of being asked if you want food with your food, and say yes. The mild sweetness of the green banana and dumplings balances out the cod’s saltiness, and the result is pure magic in your mouth. If you’re interested in cooking the dish at home, it’s relatively simple to prepare once you’ve sourced the ingredients, except for one thing: get it wrong and it will kill you.
Confession: that last statement isn’t strictly accurate. I have a difficult time sticking to the facts when it comes to Jamaica’s national fruit. I grew up in a Jamaican household, and the largest ackee tree I’ve seen is right in my father’s backyard. I’ve received research grants to study ackee’s attributes, and yet, as a fiction writer, I’m overly drawn to the drama inherent in the fruit’s history. Originating in West Africa, ackee traveled to Jamaica during the transatlantic slave trade and gained national recognition around the time of the island’s largest revolts against slavery. As a purveyor of narrative, I have too easy a time imagining eighteenth-century Jamaicans freeing themselves to the Blue Mountains by poisoning their slaveholders with this delicacy, even when there’s little historical basis for this; too often, I’ve plotted contemporary characters poisoning their abusive loved ones at some final family reunion. It’s all a bit indulgent, too on the nose. As it turns out, on the subject of the ackee fruit, I can’t be trusted. I’m a romantic.
Here’s the way ackee can poison you:
The edible part—the yellow arilli—grows in a pod, which must open naturally, at which point the toxic hypoglycin has dissipated enough for human consumption. Were you to force one of these pods open, the hypoglycin would remain in the meat of the ackee. The FDA permits only canned ackee to be imported to the U.S. Canned ackee has already been deseeded and cleaned so that when you open the can, you’ll see only the softened edible arilli resting in salted water. If you hoped to poison a family member with this, you will be disappointed. But if your goal is to prepare a Jamaican delicacy stateside, your chances of success are high.
The good folks at The Paris Review shipped me three different brands of canned ackee and challenged me to determine which tastes best. I was excited to get cooking, but also felt this was a setup, an impossible task. Here’s another crucial fact about ackee: it soaks up the flavor of the thyme and tomatoes and salted cod with which it is served, but on its own, it doesn’t taste like anything. I was concerned.
Determined to keep only to my very subjective opinions, here’s what I found, judging our three brands:
Tropical Sun: I’ll admit, I was immediately prejudiced against Tropical Sun. At a glance, the ackee pictured on the label resembles canned sweet corn, or scrambled eggs. In fairness, in both appearance and texture, cooked ackee is often compared to scrambled eggs, but the other two brands’ labels are distinct and appealing. I didn’t want to eat corn, eggs, or ackee out of this can.
Label ranking: Dead-ass last.
I opened the can of Tropical Sun ackee and found that I couldn’t differentiate one piece from another. Before you boil fresh ackee, it’s actually rather hard, as smooth as plastic, and shaped much like a pecan. Boiling takes it to a softer, edible consistency that some liken to custard, but you don’t want to boil it down to mush. When you cook ackee and saltfish, you add the ackee to the rest of the meal in the final minutes to ensure that it doesn’t lose its shape. It definitely shouldn’t be mushy on arrival.
Shape and texture ranking: Also dead last.
When I mixed the Tropical Sun ackee into the rest of the meal, I have to admit that it tasted lovely. But I’ll also admit that all three brands tasted wonderful when mixed with the cooked saltfish. All were too damn delicious—I couldn’t tell any difference.
So I broke down and ate a small amount directly from each can (not advisable). Since ackee absorbs the taste of what it’s paired with, and as these three batches had been paired with salted water, when eaten straight from the can, saltwater tin is what I tasted. With Tropical Sun, though, I also tasted something less than fresh, something distinctly unfresh.
Straight out the can ranking: Eew.
Island Sun: For what it’s worth, I like Island Sun’s label because you can see what the ackee looks like before it’s harvested, so there’s no misunderstanding what you’re getting. And when I opened the can, I was happy to see that Island Sun’s ackee, for the most part, hadn’t lost its shape—hadn’t dissolved into a runny, scrambled eggs–looking mess. When I spooned a small amount directly from the can, I tasted only the saltwater tin. Nothing else.
Rankings: Momentarily withheld.
Linstead Market: I’m a fan of well-thought-through designs and that’s what I see in Linstead Market’s label. You can see how ackee grows on their label, plus there are fewer words and the fonts are cleaner, making the label easier to read.
Label ranking: Winner. LM’s ackee held its shape and even held a healthier shade of yellow than the other two. They obviously didn’t overboil their ackee.
Shape and texture ranking: Winner. Finally, I still tasted the saltwater tin (in fact this tinny taste haunted me for a week after the initial taste test), but in Linstead Market’s ackee I also detected something fresh, as though I could taste the ackee’s nutrients.
Straight out the can ranking: By far the best of the three.
TLDR: Don’t eat ackee straight from the can.
Jonathan Escoffery’s Ackee and Saltfish Recipe
½-pound salt fish (deboned if available)
Fresh ackee soaked, or canned ackee
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small or medium bell pepper (yellow, red or green, or mix and match), julienned
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon scotch bonnet pepper, chopped finely (omit if you don’t want the dish spicy)
2 stalks scallion, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, or coconut oil (my preferred, though less typical)
2 sprigs of thyme
Black pepper to taste
Soak the salted cod in a large pot of water for several hours to reduce the saltiness. I usually leave it soaking overnight before cooking in the morning. Taste a small amount to make sure enough salt has been removed. It should be salty, but not to the point of cringing.
If you prefer to go off script and use fresh cod, you’ll skip soaking and boiling it, and need to salt it yourself (to taste). Just know that the fish should be on the salty side to begin with.
Cut up your onions, scallion, garlic, and peppers. If you’re using scotch bonnet, it’s advisable to deseed the pepper (and wash your hands immediately after touching scotch bonnet!). Set these ingredients aside.
Chop tomato and leave aside.
If you’re using proper salted cod and fresh ackee, bring your soaking cod to a boil and add the ackee to the boiling pot. Remove the cod as it becomes tender. As the ackee becomes tender (within 5–15 minutes), strain the ackee in a colander and set it aside. For canned ackee, simply open your can, rinse the ackee in cold water, strain it, and set it aside.
In a large frying pan, add your oil. If you want your version to have bacon, cook the bacon first, then use the bacon grease as your base oil. In this case, chop the bacon to small pieces once it’s fully cooked and set it aside.
Set a medium heat and add your onions, scallion, garlic, and bell peppers (don’t add the scotch bonnet here). Stir until onions and peppers are tender. Add tomato (a beat later) and stir.
Add saltfish and stir gently. The fish should break into small-to-medium-size pieces. Don’t overcook.
Add thyme, black pepper, and any other desired seasoning. I like just a dash of cayenne and/or paprika in mine. Add cooked bacon here, if desired. Stir.
Add ackee and scotch bonnet to the pan, and stir gently, reducing the heat. 1 to 3 stirs is enough.
Turn the burner off and let the pan sit with the lid on for 10 minutes to let the flavors soak into the ackee.
Pair with boiled green banana or toasted bread or dumplings (or even rice), and enjoy!
Jonathan Escoffery’s story “Under the Ackee Tree” appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Paris Review.