Jamaica's national breakfast dish isn't for the faint of heart
As I watched my in-laws pile food onto their plates, I imagined the possible headline the next day: “Fatal brunch: U.S. woman poisons in-laws.” The story of how I had accidentally murdered my husband’s parents would, of course, be paired with an unflattering mugshot. And all for the hubris of trying to fix Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, for my in-laws when they visited us in Jamaica for the first time.
I confess that when we moved to Jamaica for my husband’s job a year ago, I turned up my nose up at this dish. Ackee and saltfish (salt-cured cod) looks like scrambled eggs, but tastes mostly like fish. But once I got over that, I couldn’t get enough. The creamy ackee fruit balances out the salty cod, scotch bonnet adds a touch of fire—it’s a savory-breakfast person’s dream. But there’s a catch: When prepared incorrectly, ackee is fatally poisonous.
Eating ill-prepared ackee can cause “Jamaican vomiting sickness,” a condition caused by the toxin hypoglycin A, which interferes with the body’s processing of sugar, sending victims into a state of hypoglycemia so extreme that it can result in coma or death. It’s not surprising, then, that although ackee grows widely, there aren’t many places where people dare to eat it. Even in its native West Africa, ackee is not widely eaten. In some parts, it is mashed up to use as fish poison. Other uses include everything from soap to pain reliever. Until 2000, importing ackee into the United States was illegal.
Of course, this was all part of the thrill for me. It wasn’t like I was preparing Japanese fugu—getting the license to cook that potentially deadly delicacy requires two to three years of training. I had never cooked ackee, but it couldn’t be that hard, I thought—an island of 2.7 million people manages to eat it regularly with just a smattering of casualties. Now, watching my in-laws wipe their plates clean and dutifully exclaim how delicious it was, I was having serious second thoughts.
My preparations for cooking ackee were admittedly subpar—I had managed to wrangle an informal tutorial out of a cook at Goblin Hill, a small hotel in the northeastern coast. Preparing ackee is Jamaican Cooking 101—it’s on the level of making pasta in a dorm room. But there’s still a trick to it. In order not to poison yourself with ackee, you have to take two steps: First, you have to wait until the fruit opens up on the tree before you pick it—this means it is ripe. Jamaica is full of roadside ackee hawkers shilling the ripened fruit, so I had no problems there.
Next, you have to make sure it’s been cleaned properly. This involves separating the shiny, black seed from the edible cream-colored arils and cleaning out their stringy crimson membranes. And this is where I ran into trouble. The red membranes, which I understood to be poisonous, were exceedingly difficult to cut out. The ackee arils were slippery—the more I tried to clean the membranes out, the deeper they seemed to burrow into the soft flesh.
Just halfway through, my hands were achy and I was sure I had left some of the poisonous bits on the cleaned fruit. Why was it so much harder than it looked? Confronted with a pile of half-cleaned ackee arils, I sought help. On YouTube, of course. Several internet instructional videos later, I had an answer. There were in fact TWO types of ackee. Butter ackee and cheese ackee. I had been tutored on how to clean cheese ackee, which is firm. But the soft, slippery mess of ackee arils piled in my kitchen were butter ackee.
There was no turning back, though. Brunch hour was upon us and everyone was getting restless. Jamaica’s national dish had been promised, and it would be delivered. I called in my husband as a relief ackee cleaner. We struggled through the rest of the ackee, boiled them until they were soft, and then, in a leap of faith, fried them up with escallions (green onions), green peppers, scotch bonnet pepper, and fresh thyme.
It was delicious, and my in-laws survived. Maybe it was the the mountain of johnny cakes and plantains that I served with it that overpowered the hypoglycin A. Or perhaps it was the heartiness of my father-in-law—once, on a trip to Xian, China, we bought sandwiches that had gone badly off. While everyone else threw theirs out, he gallantly chomped through his, perhaps thinking rotten meat was just another local delicacy. Maybe I’m a promising Jamaican chef after all. Either way, don’t try this at home. Or do. And then invite your friends. Or your worst enemies.