Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, but it's actually native to the tropical forests of West Africa. It is believed that samples of the tree were brought to the Caribbean islands in 1778 and it's been there ever since.1
The name "ackee" has African origins and is derived from the word "ankye" from the Twi language of Ghana. Its botanical name pays tribute to Captain William Bligh, who brought the plants from Jamaica to England in 1793 and introduced it to the Western world.2
Since its introduction to Jamaican culture, ackee has become an integral part of its history as the key ingredient of the country's national dish.3 Today, it is exported everywhere and enjoyed by countless people worldwide.
What Is Ackee?
Ackee is classified as an evergreen tree, which means that it has foliage throughout the year. It can grow up to a height of 33 to 40 feet tall, despite having a short trunk. The crown can grow very large and bloom bright green leaves.4 Depending on the location, ackee trees may bear fruits once or twice a year. In Florida, ackee trees typically start producing fruits at around mid-summer, while in the Bahamas, the trees may produce fruits in February through April and in July through October.5
The fruit typically grows in clusters on the branches. Unripe fruits have a greenish-yellow hue but eventually become red once they ripen.6 The arils of the fruit, which are only the edible part, have a crisp and nutty flavor.7
Take Advantage of Ackee's Health Benefits
Ackee is not just popular for its taste and culinary uses. It's also recognized for its potential health benefits, thanks to nutrients such as fiber, riboflavin, vitamin C, calcium and potassium. These nutrients are important for the following:8
- Digestive problems — The ackee fruit is rich in fiber, which may help regulate bowel elimination by quickening the transit of food through your intestines and adding bulk to your stool.9 Additionally, intake of dietary fiber has been linked to a lowered risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.10
- Blood pressure — Ackee is an excellent source of potassium, which is a known vasodilator. It works by opening up (dilating) your blood vessels so that your cardiovascular system doesn't work too hard.11 This may help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and damage to your blood vessels.12
- Blood circulation — Aside from helping lowering blood pressure, ackee may help improve your blood circulation. It contains iron, an essential mineral that may help deliver oxygen efficiently throughout your body.13 The iron content may help with the symptoms of anemia as well, such as resting tachycardia, paleness and shortness of breath.14
- Immune system — One of the traditional uses of ackee is for helping alleviate common illnesses. It happens to be a great source of vitamin C, a nutrient that may help boost your immune system, which in turn helps protect your body from various diseases.15
The Different Uses of Ackee
The ackee tree is mainly enjoyed for its fruit, which can be used in various types of dishes. However, the other parts of the tree have various uses as well, including:
- Soap — The capsules of the fruits are known to contain saponins and may be used for washing. Immature fruits may be cut into small pieces and put in water to wash clothes. Soaps made of ackee are typically mixed with shea butter and are used to help alleviate scabies and burns.16
- Fishing material — Ethnic groups used the bark, seeds and capsules of the ackee tree to poison fishes and make them easier to catch.17
- Construction and pilings — The wood of the ackee tree is durable and immune to termites, making it a good option for railway sleepers. It can also be used for oars and paddles.18
- Cologne — Extracts from the ackee flower is used in Cuba as cologne.19
Lastly, ackee plays an important role in the economy of Jamaica. The Jamaican ackee exporting industry was valued at around $4.5 million in 2005, with Jamaican canned ackee exports earning about $36.8 million between 2001 and 2005. Orchards provide numerous jobs for people in rural areas, where unemployment is high.20
How to Cook Ackee
Ackee is one of the main ingredients of Jamaica's national dish, simply named "ackee and saltfish." This dish is composed of different herbs and spices, and can be served any time of the day. In fact, ackee and saltfish is so well-loved that it was described by the Jamaican poet and writer, Olive Senior, as "the greatest delicacy."21 Other ways of preparing this fruit include:22
- Fried in butter — Ripe ackee fruits are commonly parboiled in some milk or salt water and then fried in butter.
- Stewed — Together with beef, salt-pork and seasonings, ackee may be added to stews.
- Curried — When cooked with curry, ackee may be eaten with rice.
Classic Ackee and Saltfish
Aside from being a flavorful national delicacy, ackee and saltfish is easy to prepare. The two namesake ingredients are simply sautéed alongside various herbs, spices and vegetables. Here's a simple recipe you can try:
✓ 1 pound dried salt cod
✓ 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
✓ 1 each red and green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
✓ 1 can of ackee, rinsed and drained
✓ 2 tablespoons coconut oil
✓ 1 large yellow onion, chopped
✓ 1/2 habanero chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
✓ Himalayan sea salt, to taste
✓ 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
✓ 1 tomato, cored and chopped
✓ 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- Place the cod in a 2-quart saucepan. Cover with about 2 inches of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 20 minutes.
- Drain cod and return it to the saucepan. Repeat the process twice more.
- Transfer the cod to a bowl and flake with a fork into large chunks. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add thyme, garlic, onion, tomato, peppers and chile. Cook while stirring gently to keep cod and ackee in large pieces. This will take about five minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
(Recipe adapted from Saveur23)
Ackee Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 100 grams, brined24
|Calories from Fat
|Calcium 40 mg
Side Effects of Ackee You Should Know About
The export of ackee to the U.S. had a rocky start due to quality issues. It was strictly banned for many years because it contains a toxin called hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B. While ripe fruits contain these toxins in very low quantities, unripe fruits may have up to 100 times more, which can lead to poisoning. The levels vary depending on the fruit's exposure to sunlight, with sun-exposed fruits having lower levels.
Symptoms of ackee poisoning include hypoglycemia, nervous system abnormalities and gastrointestinal disorders, such as vomiting. The Jamaican vomiting sickness, which is the name coined for this kind of poisoning, is lethal, especially in children.25
Fortunately, the situation is improving in the ackee export industry, allowing Americans to enjoy the fruit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a "Green List" consisting of companies and manufacturers that employ food safety controls and properly screen ripe ackees for the safety of the consumer. So if you're looking to get your hands on some ackees, it's recommended that you only get them from facilities in the Green List.26