Akee—Jamaica’s National Dish
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN JAMAICA
IT IS Sunday morning on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. “Breakfast is served,” announces the cheerful hostess to her foreign visitor.
“I see we are having scrambled eggs for breakfast,” the visitor says.
“Oh no,” answers the housewife, “that is akee and salt fish. Taste it.”
“It is delicious,” her visitor responds. “But it certainly looks like scrambled eggs! What is akee? Is it a fruit or a vegetable?”
“That is an old question,” replies the housewife. “Botanically, akee is regarded as a fruit, but on the dining table, it is considered by many to be a vegetable.”
Let us tell you more about akee.
An Appreciated Tree
The akee tree originated in West Africa. According to the book A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, by Olive Senior, the first plants reached Jamaica when they were purchased from the captain of a slave ship in the 18th century. The name akee is believed by some to originate from the word ankye of the Twi language of Ghana.
Akee trees are big, reaching up to about 50 feet [15 m] in height. They can be found all over Jamaica, and their fruit is eaten by all classes of people. The dish prepared with akee is fondly called Jamaica’s national dish. Akee is usually mixed with imported salted codfish in a sauce of onions, peppers, and other seasonings. When the salted cod is not available, akee is eaten with other fish or meats or by itself.
The immature fruit of the akee tree is greenish in color, but as it matures it takes on a bright reddish color. When fully mature, the fruit bursts open and is ready to be picked. When the fruit opens, three arils are exposed, each of which has a black seed attached to the top. The cream-colored arils are the parts that are actually eaten after the black seeds and the reddish substance in the center of the arils are removed.
When a Source of Danger
Occasionally there have been incidents of food poisoning—especially in children—that have been associated with the eating of akee. Investigations have pinpointed the cause to be the eating of immature fruit. Research has confirmed that before the fruit bursts open, it contains hypoglycin, an amino acid.
Biochemists have discovered that hypoglycin interferes with the breakdown of fatty acids. This can lead to a buildup in the blood of various short chain acids, causing drowsiness and coma. Hypoglycin also blocks the production of blood glucose, which is vital to metabolism.
Findings indicate that the hypoglycin in akees is dissolved when unopened fruits are cooked. Therefore, the water in which akee is cooked should be discarded and should not be used to cook any other food. Warnings about the danger of eating or cooking immature akees have been given from time to time by the Department of Public Health.
Most lovers of akee say that they have eaten it all their lives and have never suffered harmful effects. So some may deny that akee can be dangerous.
In spite of the periodic reports of poisonings, akee and salt fish is growing in popularity as a Jamaican meal. Yet, the partnership has come under threat, as the price of imported codfish has increased dramatically in recent years. But akee can be prepared with other kinds of fish and meats, so the majority of people will probably not abandon this national dish of Jamaica.
If your interest in akee has been stirred, you may not have to visit here to sample it because it has become a popular export. Yes, akee is canned and shipped to other countries, especially lands to which large numbers of Jamaicans have immigrated. So if you see canned akee in your country or if you pay a visit to Jamaica, try eating some akee and salt fish. Who knows? You too may fall in love with its unique taste!
[Picture on page 17]
Fruit of the akee tree