Sunday 21 September 2014

Ackee & Saltfish with Coconut Johnny Cakes

Ackee and Saltfish is the national dish of Jamaica. There are different side dishes that can accompany it but a popular option is fried dumplings known as johnny cakes. A friend of mine who is originally from Jamaica challenged/requested me to do this dish. Though I've eaten it plenty of times before, I'd never tried my hand at making it. It may look simple, and it is, but there are several steps and some technique you need to know. I've got a lot to cover in this post so I'll try to keep it brief and to the point.

Ackee is a tropical tree that produces fruit of the same name. It looks a little like a reddish pear and when opened it contains three large, black seeds encased in a yellowish membrane. The membrane (or "meat") is the edible part. It resembles scrambled egg in appearance but has a texture and flavour which reminds me of avocado. The ackee tree only grows in warm environments. Since fresh ackee in Canada is simply not a thing and it doesn't travel well, most ackee that Canadians will have access to is canned. I've never had fresh ackee but as with most other things I'm told it is better fresh versus canned. Though you can still put together a tasty version of this classic dish with canned ackee. 

This is the particular brand of ackee that I used. There are several different brands available. I chose this brand at random and it worked very well.

This is a shot of what the ackee looks like after I rinsed and strained it. Just to familiarize yourselves with it if you're not already. Yum!

Saltfish is white fish, usually but not always cod, that is dried and heavily salted. It is a common ingredient used by the Portuguese who call it "bacalhau". The drying and salting of the fish preserves it and enhances a particular flavour that you don't get from fresh cod. To prepare the saltfish it must first be soaked, boiled, rinsed and dried. Don't worry, I'll show you how to do all of that. 

You may have to visit a West Indian grocer to locate some of these ingredients. In this post we're going to go over how to prepare saltfish, the johnny cake recipe and the ackee & saltfish recipe. So let's get started. 

How to Prepare Saltfish

First you're going to need to get your hands on some saltfish. I found mine at a West Indian grocer in Toronto's Kensington market but you can also find it at some fish mongers or other specialty markets (dried & salted cod or white fish is a popular item in Caribbean, Latin and many European communities). In a pinch you can always order it online. Sometimes you can find it with skin and bones or without. Either is fine, but if you can only find some with skin and bones you'll just need to remove those parts near the end. For this recipe you'll only need about 1/2 pound of prepared saltfish but if you have any excess you can use them to make fritters, callaloo, add it to soups or stews and a variety of other uses. 

Place the saltfish in a large bowl and cover completely with cool water. Allow to soak overnight. This will help to soften and rehydrate. Every now and then, dump and replace the water if you can, but it's not absolutely necessary. 

Afterward, drain the saltfish.

Then place the rehydrated saltfish in gently boiling water and allow to cook for about 25 minutes. If you like, add a bay leaf or two to the water for a little added flavour.

Then drain the saltfish again and rinse thoroughly with cold water. When the saltfish is cool enough to handle, use paper towels to squeeze out as much excess water as you can.

Then use a pair of forks to flake the saltfish apart. Now you have prepared saltfish. Any excess that you may not require for the recipe can be kept in the fridge and added to just about anything else you like.

Coconut Johnny Cakes


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup shredded coconut

2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp cold butter, diced
Oil for frying

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together. 

Add the butter to the bowl. 

Lightly cut the butter into the flour mixture until you get a slightly crumby texture. Stir in the shredded coconut.

Gradually add coconut milk and combine.

Knead until a firm dough is formed. The climate of where you live will effect the consistency of your dough. If the dough feels too sticky, adjust with more flour. If it seems too dry, add more coconut milk or water. Trust your instincts and play with it. If you feel you need more of on or the other, add in small amounts while you adjust. You can always add more later, but you can't really take any away without a hassle. 

Form individual dumplings from your dough. In retrospect, I wish I had made mine a little smaller. I recommend using about a tablespoon or so of dough per johnny cake. Roll each dumpling into a ball and then flatten slightly. 

Fry the johnny cakes in hot oil. Fry in batches to prevent the temperature of the oil dropping and to prevent them from sticking to each other while cooking. Cook until a golden brown crust forms. 

Remove the johnny cakes from the oil and directly onto paper towel to drain. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes so they do not burn your mouth. They are best eaten hot. 

Your johnny cakes should have a crispy, golden crust and the inside should be light and fluffy with threads of coconut throughout it.

They are almost like doughnuts but the butter in them gives a slightly biscuity texture. Some johnny cake recipes do not include any sugar but here it helps to bring out the flavour of the coconut. In Jamaica they also make festivals (which can also be served with ackee and saltfish) that are similar to johnny cakes but they contain corn meal added. 

Ackee & Saltfish


1/2 lb prepared saltfish (see above for method)
1 540ml/19 oz can of ackee, rinsed and strained (or if you can find fresh, 2 cups)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper, seeds removed and finely chopped (omit or increase to your taste)
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
3 scallions, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
A few sprigs of thyme

2  tbsp of olive oil
* I find that there is enough saltiness in the saltfish to season the entire dish. If you disagree, feel free to add more to your taste.

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high and sautée the onion, garlic and scotch bonnet until the onions have softened.

Add the bell peppers, scallion and fresh thyme. Continue to sautée for a couple of minutes.

Add the prepared saltfish and stir to combine. Cook for an additional 3-5 minutes.

I don't like the tomato in my ackee and saltfish to be too cooked or else it starts to stew and go mushy. I would add the tomato at this point and just warm them through for maybe a minute.

Then add the rinsed and strained ackee to the pan. Remember, ackee is delicate and will turn to mush if over-disturbed. The best method is toss the actual pan rather than using a wooden spoon. If you're not confident in yourself at doing that, then use a couple of forks to gently toss the ingredients together. 

Remove the sprigs of thyme, plate with your hot coconut johnny cakes and serve! This is a very classic Jamaican dish. Nothing is overly complicated, just a nice combination of flavours and textures. Since the fish was previously dried and cured it has a little extra bite which works well against the light, creaminess of the ackee. It's a great way to add vegetables into your diet. If you'd rather not make the fried dumplings, ackee and saltfish is also popularly served with rice and peas.

So, Kyle, I hope I did your request justice in preparing Jamaica's national dish. My friend and I certainly enjoyed this. Thanks for the challenge! 

I've never been to Jamaica but I would love to. If I ever make it I will make a point of trying this there where fresh ackee is used. I bet it is so good!


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