Jamaican breakfast

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One of the things I love about travel is trying the local cuisine. When I’m lucky, I get to try foods I’ve never tasted, or even heard of. A recent trip to Jamaica found me doing just that. Yes, there was the ubiquitous jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But my favorite was the “Jamaican Breakfast.”

I’ve always been an “eat first, ask questions later” kind of guy; but even I was wary of “ackee and saltfish,” which was served with callaloo, Johnnycakes and fried plantains.

Callaloo is similar to stewed spinach or greens. Johnnycakes are like hushpuppies, but better. The plaintains were sliced and sautéed lightly in butter.

But what are ackee and saltfish?

Let’s start with ackee. Native to West Africa, it was imported to Jamaica in the 1700s. The fruit grows on trees, and turns from green to red to yellow-orange as it ripens. The fruit is soft and a bit spongy, and when cooked resembles firm scrambled eggs.

Saltfish is more familiar; it is essentially salt cod. It is soaked, boiled, and then flaked, to be sautéed with the ackee, along with Jamaica’s native and fiery scotch bonnet peppers. Named for their resemblance to the Scottish tam-o-shanter, scotch bonnets are very similar to habaneros, but slightly sweeter.

Rounding out the ackee and saltfish dish are onions, tomatos and bell peppers. Who would ever think of this for breakfast? But believe it or not, “Ackee and Saltfish” is ranked #2 by a National Geographic survey of national dishes. (American hamburgers are #1, while Barbados’ famous coo-coo and flying fish takes the bronze.)

I sought to make ackee and salt cod back home. My favorite fishmonger, Monahan’s in Ann Arbor, had the cod; but ackee was a challenge. I searched high and low, until I ended up at my favorite last-resort store. “ZZ’s Produce” is in a wooden shack in a dirt lot, on the city’s outskirts. Their shelves include a hodgepodge of Mexican, Middle Eastern, Asian, and other ethnic cuisines. Their employees and customers speak a harmony of languages even more diverse than Epcot World Showcase – why, even approaching the actual United Nations. And lo and behold, they had a Jamaican section consisting of canned ackee, and maybe some jerk spice.

I bought two cans. It’s not cheap, due to severe import restrictions, because ackee can be highly toxic if not fully ripened. Thus you cannot find it fresh in the U.S., just canned.

I never did find scotch bonnet peppers. I substituted a habañero and added a pureed chunk of pineapple to compensate for its lack of sweetness. Here’s the recipe I used, my own combination of several that I found on the internet. The result was delicious, and just as good as I remembered.

Ackee and Saltfish

(serves 4)

Ingredients

1/2-pound salt fish

2 cans (20 oz) canned ackee

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small green pepper, diced

1 medium tomato, diced (or equivalent canned)

1 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 chunk pineapple, minced or pureed

1 fresh habanero, chopped finely

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme

1 tsp smoked paprika

2 stalks scallion, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Put saltfish to soak in cold water for about 1 hour. Pour off water; add fresh water and boil, then simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. De-bone the saltfish as necessary and flake into small pieces.

2. Heat oil and sauté onions and hot pepper for 2-3 minutes.

3. Mince garlic and pineapple chunk and add to the pan, along with chopped green pepper. Sauté 2-3 minutes until the contents of the pan are reasonably tender.

4. Add thyme and paprika and stir well.

5. Add flaked saltfish and ackee. Toss lightly (the ackee is delicate); cover and allow to stand over low heat for about 2 minutes.

With some good brown toast, fresh fruit and a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, it’s a great way to start the day — and Red Stripe is a fine way to end it, watching that Jamaican sunset. “Jah Mon!”

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation.

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