Ackee and saltfish: A Jamaican navigates the taste of home

Jamaicans have transformed a history of pain into delicious food, but what if you are allergic to your national dish?

Ackee and Saltfish is Jamaica's national dish [Didi Beck/Al Jazeera]
Ackee and Saltfish is Jamaica's national dish [Didi Beck/Al Jazeera]

“Oh my goodness, that banana is green, how can you eat that?” asks my uncle.

It is 7am and the banana I am about to put into my smoothie is not technically green. But it’s also not so ripe that it’s brown, the way we Jamaicans usually eat them. After 10 years living away from my home, I have gotten used to eating the barely ripe tasteless bananas that grace the shelves of Key Foods in Brooklyn, New York, where I live for most of the year.

Each time I return home for vacation, my family and friends giggle at all the “foreign” habits I have picked up. Green banana? A runny egg? Almond milk? My cousins shake their heads as I make myself breakfast.

We Jamaicans are an exclusive set of people – citizenship is not something that is automatically renewed, it is a relationship you must fight for. You earn it by keeping up with the latest dances, the new slang, and displaying your loyalty by hunting down Jamaican food wherever you are and loudly despising all other cuisines. Take your eyes off the culture for a second and you will find yourself left behind.

I love banana chips, stew peas and a chicken patty as much as the next person. I, too, have said a prayer at US customs as I breeze through the “nothing to declare” line, with a box of frozen patties in my suitcase. I have demolished my fair share of 3am post-dance pan chicken. And I know there are few heartbreaks that a piece of hardo bread with a fist-sized chunk of butter will not fix. But there is one thing I cannot accept – and that is Jamaican breakfast.

Hardo bread and other staples of Jamaican food in the writer’s life [Didi Beck /Al Jazeera]

There is no such thing as a “light” Jamaican dish. Our food is heavy, rich and decadent – just like our history and our culture. Jamaican breakfast is whole pieces of chicken in a thick stew. It is mackerel in coconut milk sauce. We like our food dipped in oil, deep-fried, dripping in sauce and baked inside lard filled crusts. Then we add scotch bonnet and 500 mysterious seasonings. It is mouthwatering. And I, who had the luxury of being born in a country offering some of the most delicious foods on Earth, was also born with an incredibly sensitive stomach.

This earns me no end of ridicule and scorn from my family. On Saturday mornings, when my cousin Sean shows up with boxes of liver, stewed chicken and mackerel run down, I try not to draw attention to myself as I quietly toast a piece of bread in the corner.

For the most part, I can handle these heavy dishes in the afternoon, but before noon, I would rather stick my head in an incinerator. But there is one breakfast staple that has been my saviour through all the heartache – ackee and saltfish, the country’s national dish.

I will not lie, ackee and saltfish are funny looking – it looks like a fishy serving of oily scrambled eggs. But trust me, to know true pleasure is to tear off a piece of freshly fried dumpling (so fresh out of the pot that the vegetable oil sears your fingertips) and use it to scoop a fat stack of ackee and saltfish straight into your mouth.

It is deeply symbolic of our country’s history that neither ackee nor saltfish is indigenous to Jamaica. Like everything else in the Caribbean, it is a product of colonialism. Just as our dialect, patois, is a combination of African dialects, English, French and Spanish, our dishes are also a mixture of global foods birthed from the pain of slavery.

Ackee was brought over from Ghana in the 1700s to feed enslaved Africans forced to work on the island’s sugar plantations. Codfish could never stand the warm waters of the Caribbean, so we import them from Canada. Salting the fish meant it could withstand the journey, and last longer to feed large numbers of people.

The dish is often served with breadfruit, a fruit that is green on the outside but looks like a piece of bread when you cut into it. This high carb fruit was brought over from New Guinea as an inexpensive way to feed large populations of enslaved Africans. Yet Jamaicans have reclaimed it. We take something from a history of pain and turn it into something that is ours.

The thought of a good ackee and saltfish has kept me going through many cold winters, job disappointments and heartache. That was until … I developed an allergy to it.

Ackee is a fruit that is poisonous at first, but loses its toxicity when it opens up [Didi Beck /Al Jazeera]

The first time it happened I thought maybe I had been poisoned. See, you cannot buy ackee from just anybody. Ackee is a seemingly innocent fruit; red on the outside and a soft yellow on the inside. It is poisonous when it is closed, but as it grows, it opens up and loses its venom, shedding its toxic trait like we can all hope to as we grow older.

Within two hours of eating it, I would feel my face get hot. Within three hours, I would feel a prickle in my throat as it tightened. Within four hours, I would be sitting on the toilet floor vomiting until every last bit of it was out of my system.

It took me a year to accept my fate. I would eat mounds of it and then vomit and blame it on the aeroplane. I would blame it on a hangover, the stomach flu, bad seasoning, anything but the dish. Then I had to accept my fate. I loved ackee, but ackee did not love me. The thing that used to fill me with a sense of ease now filled me with dread. I was allergic to our national dish – did I even belong here anymore?

For Jamaicans abroad, food is a way of holding them together [Didi Beck /Al Jazeera]

About 2.7 million Jamaicans live on the tiny island. And about as many live off the island. Behind the veneer of an island paradise, Jamaica struggles with a poor economy and a murder rate so high that it is one of the top 10 in the world. Just as migration to the island has defined us, so too has migration from it. Everyone has relatives who have gone abroad seeking better opportunities. In that way holding on to our culture, through our music, speech and food becomes even more dear to us.

Ackee and saltfish encapsulate much of how I feel about Jamaica. I love it although it causes me so much pain. I have lived abroad, partly because there are more opportunities for work and partly because I am running away from the expectations of my family that lay waiting for me at Sangster International Airport. Just as in many developing countries, the wishes of your family and community are expected to be placed above your own.

Jamaica is a maddening place. It is constantly falling apart and yet fully whole. It is charming and suffocating. It is just like ackee and saltfish. It is delicious and has the potential to poison you. It lures me in and then it hurts me. And yet it is the only thing I crave.

Every year or so, I test it out to see if my allergy has gone away. I eat it, knowing that I will spend the next few hours wrapped around the toilet throwing up. Because home is like that, no matter how much it hurts you, you still keep coming back for more.

Source : Al Jazeera

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