“Out of Many, One People” is the motto of Jamaica. Jamaica is an island full of history, heritage, and people from all around the world. With influences from China, Spain, Africa, India, and Britain, the Jamaican palette is diverse with rich culinary choices. Though they share lush diversity, the Jamaican flavor profile is quite distinct from the American palate. The Jamaican cuisine is healthier as it is made with more unprocessed foods, uses smaller portions of meats, and has a high content of fish, beans, and vegetables. Typical herbs that can be found in Jamaican meal are thyme and ginger. Typical spices that can be found in Jamaican meals are nutmeg and pimento (Allspice). The aromatic spices of the Caribbean have instilled the island with the opportunity to create one of the most unusual fusions of flavors in the world. One of the most popular items on any Jamaican menu, and a key spice in Jamaica’s national dish is jerk, a marinade that can be added to almost anything, but usually meat. The following project, which incorporates jerk, is an introduction to one of Jamaica’s most celebrated dishes: Ackee and Saltfish.
What is Ackee and Saltfish?
Ackee is Jamaica’s national fruit. When paired with Saltfish it is Jamaica’s national dish. Because parts of the fruit are toxic, there are shipping restrictions when being imported to countries such as the United States. The sale of Ackee under any form, canned or fresh, was banned in America in 1970. Faced with a growing tide of illegal importation, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided in July 2000 to set standards and to designate companies in Jamaica who could produce canned Ackee that they would deem safe for import. It is delicious yet dangerous if not prepared properly. To prepare the dish, salted cod is sautéed with boiled ackee, onions, Scotch Bonnet peppers (optional), tomatoes, and spices, such as black pepper and pimiento. It is usually served as breakfast or dinner alongside rice, hard dough bread, dumplings, fried plantain, or bammy.
2 Dozen Ackees (or 2 Tins of Ackee)
1/2lb Salted Codfish
1 Medium Tomato, chopped
1 Green Sweet Pepper, chopped
1 Onion chopped, or thinly sliced
Coconut Oil (or vegetable oil)
Salt and Pepper
2 rice cups (360ml) of Rice
- Soak the saltfish overnight in a covered pot. In the morning, pour off the water. Add fresh water and bring to a boil. Taste the fish to ensure that most of the salt has been boiled off. If it is very salty, pour off the water, add fresh water and boil again. This should be enough. The saltfish should not be bland. Pour off water and allow to cool. Using your fingers, break the fish into small pieces while removing any present bones.
- To prepare canned ackees, drain liquid from the ackees and add to a pot of boiling water for about 2-3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- In a large skillet, warm the oil over medium heat
- Add onion, tomatoes and sweet peppers. Sauté until softened about 5 minutes
- Add saltfish and stir to combine
- Add ackee to the pot
- Add salt and pepper
- Give a gentle stir so that you don’t break up the ackee
- Cover and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes
- Gently stir to fully combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste
- For the Rice: Pour 2 rice cups into rice cooker. Add water to the number 2 line and cook.
- Serve and enjoy
Jamaica is pretty much the only country outside of Africa that eats the strange-looking fruit known as ackee. Ackee, Blighia Sapida, is the national fruit of Jamaica and is born in clusters on an evergreen tree. The tree is not endemic to the West Indies but was introduced from West Africa during the 18th century. There are two bearing seasons: between January to March and June to August. Ackee is bright red on the outside and, when ripe, it bursts open to reveal three or more large, shiny black seeds and pale yellow flesh. An ackee will open up by itself when it is ready; before that, an ackee is toxic to humans. Complex chemical reactions go on in food all of the time, even if we’re not cooking them. Unripe ackee fruit contains a poison called hypoglycin, so we must be careful to wait until the fruit’s protective pods turn red and open naturally before consummation is attempted. Once open, the only edible portion is the yellow arilli, which surround always-toxic glossy black seeds. These seeds contain two potent poisons: hypoglycin-A and hypoglycin-B. When ackee is improperly eaten or prepared it can cause what has been dubbed the Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, which, other than the self-explanatory symptoms, can lead to coma or death. The chemical and poison behind JVS, hypoglycin, is a nonproteinogenic amino acid, meaning that it is an unnatural amino acid and not found in our genetic code. It lowers blood sugar and inhibits fatty-acid oxidation. Despite the great risk, there is a delectable and nutritional payoff when prepared safely. Ackee contains a lot of protein, unsaturated fats, and is rich in essential fatty acids.
Once the edible part of the ackee is extracted, the cooking process is relativity easy. Because ackee is canned, the whole process of safely removing the edible portions of the fruit is regulated and monitored by the FDA. Consequently, preparation of ackee often begins with draining of the ackee from the can it came in. Once the liquid is drained it must be placed in a pot of boiling water for about 2-3 minutes and then set aside to be sautéed among a variety of vegetables and Saltfish. The process of sautéing is a form of heat transfer that uses high levels of conduction and low levels of both convection and radiation. The vegetables, or more specifically the onions, are put into the pan first so that whilst sautéing they undergo a process known as caramelization. Caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning in which chemical compounds are broken down by heat without the use of a protein to catalyze or speed up the reaction. Heat causes the sugar molecules that make up polysaccharides to separate into in a process called pyrolysis. When we cook vegetables, we break down the structural sugars present as well, making them softer than raw vegetables. To sum it all up, the heat that the stove supplies is breaking down the larger sugars naturally found in vegetables down into monosaccharaides, making them taste sweeter and making them softer. Be careful not to overcook the ackee as it will get extremely soft and turn into mush. Cooked ackee looks like scrambled eggs.
Salted fish, such as kippered herring or dried and salted cod, is fish cured with dry salt and thus preserved for later eating. Salting is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Saltfish has been a part of Caribbean cuisine dating all the way back to the days of colonial rule. Salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of unwanted bacteria. Most bacteria, fungi and other potentially pathogenic organisms cannot survive in a highly salty environment, due to the hypertonic nature of salt. Before it can be eaten, salt cod must be rehydrated and desalinated by soaking in cold water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day. To cook saltfish it is wise to boil it numerous times. Boiling requires High conduction, moderate convection, and low radiation. The purpose is never to remove all of the salt, sufficient salt should linger to taste, if not, you can end up with a flavorless piece of fish. Once boiled, Saltfish is set aside to be sautéed with the ackee and veggies. The combination of boiling and sautéing works to denature the peptide bonds at the secondary and tertiary level due to too much energy. The heat provides the energy to create new, stronger bonds between the straightened muscle fibers. These fibers recombine through process known as coagulation. If the fish is cooked too much it will get tough and dry.
Ackee and Saltfish is commonly seasoned with Jerk. Jerk is a seasoning blend of cinnamon, ginger, allspice (which Jamaicans call pimento), cloves, thyme, garlic, onions, and most importantly, chilies (that is what gives jerk seasoning its kick). It has a very unique taste. As we learned in class taste is a form of chemoreception, where chemical compounds, tastants, react with sensory receptors. The chili pepper used in the blending of jerk, Scotch Bonner, has an active chemical compound called capsaicin. The capsaicin is received by ion channel TrpV1. Along with the habanero, the scotch bonnet is the hottest pepper in the world and most Americans could probably not handle it. In fact, a lot of jerk seasoning sold in the US, has been toned down to accommodate American (i.e., feeble) palates. The scotch bonnet is ranked in the upper tier of the Scoville scale; it has 350,000-550,000 units heat units, which is 30 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño!
Rice is cooked through a process known as starch gelatinization. As rice is about 90% starch, rice cooking is basically the reaction of starch in water at elevated temperatures. Heat causes starch to absorb water and swell. When a certain temperature, gelatinization temperature, is reached, the cell wall of the granule breaks and the starch turns viscous, gelatinized.