Some time ago, I sat across from my guy, watching the television while he cleaned some ackees in preparation for the ackee and saltfish meal he planned to cook for us the following morning (oh yeah!). Suddenly, he looked up at me, quite perplexed, and said (I’m paraphrasing here): “Di government mus do somting bout di price of saltfish. Why is ackee and saltfish our national dish, considering we ha fi import di saltfish?!”
I must admit I was a bit stumped; I never really considered this question. Like the majority of Jamaicans I’m sure, I just accepted that this delicious meal is our official national dish; no questions asked. Even the international media recognises ackee and saltfish as distinctly Jamaican. And then and there I decided to answer his question on Jamaican Echoes in this new feature I call, Ask Jamaican Echoes.
So let’s get to answering his question…
Why is Ackee and Saltfish Jamaica’s National Dish?
Let me first clarify that, unlike Jamaica’s other national symbols – the coat of arms; ackee, the national fruit; the national flag; Doctor Bird or Swallowtail Humming bird, the national bird; blue mahoe, the national tree; and lignum vitae, the national flower – there is no official national dish. I repeat: Jamaica has no officially designated national dish. Instead, over the centuries, ackee and saltfish has gained such an important role in Jamaica’s culinary and cultural identity that, by default, the dish has become inextricably defined as Jamaican and, unofficially, our national dish. Additionally, Jamaicans are among the only people who eat ackee, resulting in the fruit assuming such a significant cultural importance (Senior 2003).
This question – Why is ackee and saltfish Jamaica’s national dish? – was also asked by renowned Jamaican educator and social activist, Amy Bailey (November 27, 1895 – October 3, 1990), O.J., O.D., M.B.E., in an article published in the Daily Gleaner for Saturday, August 26, 1939, pg. 35, titled “Jamaicanising Jamaica: Yams, Cocos, Plaintains, Bananas & Bush Tea.” In this article Miss Bailey made the following statement about ackee and saltfish and rice and peas, which were both, at this time, unofficially considered Jamaica’s national dishes:
It is significant that our two national dishes – ackee and saltfish, and rice and pease, should depend on two imported materials for their composition. This entirely sums up our national consciousness. I should like to be told of another country where its national dish has a foreign element. The thing is a contradiction in terms; and yet we have complacently accepted this attitude year in, and year out. It may be difficult, but we shall have to find national dishes that are wholly Jamaican. Let the pepper-pot be one, boiled with the native pork or beef. Cannot the Domestic Science Departments of our schools or colleges, or some enterprising housewives cull together an appetising Jamaica dish, something with bananas in it, that will be the delight of foreigners? How grateful we should be to them! Unless we can grow all our rice here, then the rice and pease should no longer strictly be regarded as a national dish. And unless we can cure our own fish, ackee and saltfish may be eaten, but must be banned as a national dish.
Ackee, the National Fruit
We have yet to decide on an official national dish for inclusion among our national symbols. In February 1996, to fully grasp what it means to be Jamaican, the then Prime Minister, the Right Honourable P.J. Patterson, appointed a committee to examine the country’s national symbols and observances. The Committee to Examine National Symbols and National Observances, chaired by Professor the Honourable Ralston Milton “Rex” Nettleford (February 3, 1933 – February 2, 2010), was charged with, among others, reviewing the role, significance, meaning and suitability of Jamaica’s national symbols and national observances and to recommend such changes as may appear desirable.
After conducting an extensive national consultation between February and August 1996, including holding public meetings, special colloquia with several interest groups, and receiving written submissions from the general public and civil society organisations, the committee published its report in October 1996. In its report, the Committee stated the following about the national fruit, ackee, and the unofficial national dish, ackee and saltfish (Committee to Examine National Symbols and National Observances 1996, pp. 20-21):
Although a few submissions suggested the pineapple, guava and soursop as indigenous fruits worth considering to replace the existing fruit, none of these seemed a serious threat to the ackee (Blighia Sapida). Although not indigenous to Jamaica, the fruit has had remarkable historic associations with the country and this was appreciated by all and sundry. Originally imported from West Africa, its propagation dates back to the 18th century and received the botanical name from the famous Captain Bligh when he took the plant [to] England in 1893 and from which time the plant entered the annals of science.
Jamaica is, indeed, still the only place where the fruit is generally recognised as an edible crop.
There was an overwhelming support from submissions for the retention of the ackee though there was no agreement on the ackee and saltfish being the “national dish” for which there is no official provision in any case. The favourite suggestion for the record seems to be “fish and festival” … that has become popular since Independence.
Among its three recommendations concerning the ackee, the Committee recommended that it should be retained as the National Fruit. To this day no “national dish” category is included among Jamaica’s six national symbols.
For more about the introduction of the ackee to Jamaica read The Ackee and the Breadfruit: Where did These Fruits Come From?
Saltfish has always been an imported commodity. During Jamaica’s sugar plantation and slavery days, saltfish was imported as a “cheap protein food for the enslaved Africans. … With all hands put to planting cane, there was little time or inclination to provide fresh meat, and cheap cod from the New England colonies was the answer, salted and dried hard to survive the tropical climate” (Senior 2003, pg. 189). The result? Saltfish sell aaff!
This form of protein was not only consumed by the enslaved Africans, but also by all other members of the pre- and post-Emancipation Jamaican society. For instance, Caroline Sullivan, a 19th century cookbook author, made the following observation in her book, The Jamaica Cookery Book (1893) (Senior 2003, pg. 189):
It is surprising to most newcomers to find that in Jamaica there is hardly a more popular dish among the natives, and often among the upper classes, than the despised salt fish, eaten at home [i.e. England] not from choice but as a sort of penitential dish…. Here it is the almost daily, and certainly the favourite, food of the people generally, and cooked as they cook it cannot fail to please the most fastidious.
The combination of saltfish, once considered the poor man’s food, with ackee was inevitable. As they say, the rest is history.
There is no official national dish in Jamaica, and a “national dish” category does not exist among the current roster of Jamaica’s six national symbols. Ackee and saltfish, however, due to its cultural, culinary, and historical importance, is considered Jamaica’s unofficial national dish.
Buzzle.com, in its List of National Dishes Around the World, defines a national dish as:
… any country’s culinary, and to a large extent, cultural identity. However, there are some countries which do not have an official national dish. In such countries, some dishes have gained so much importance, they are considered the de facto – although unofficial – national dish.
This seems to be the case with Jamaica and our intense love affair with ackee and saltfish. The article, however, ends with a statement that is in agreement with Amy Bailey’s position about “Jamaicanising” our national dish:
“A national dish represents a country. It speaks for a country. It stands for the country’s cultural and economical identity. A national dish typically uses regional staples and native cooking techniques/ideas of its home country. This makes it possible for all regions and communities in the country to access its ingredients. Also, people belonging to all strata of society can cook and enjoy the dish. That is exactly what makes a dish go ‘national’!
Maybe we need to have a national consensus on meals that can be called Jamaica’s official national dishes based on the above criteria: meals that can be prepared using indigenous staples and cooking techniques. It really does beg the question: Why call a certain meal our national dish if we have to import an essential component of said meal?
Do you have any suggestions for meals that could be considered our official national dishes? How about jerk pork for one? Fish and festival could also be a contender. An alternative is to invest in curing our own fish on a national scale to reduce the cost on consumers so we can all enjoy ackee and salt fish unhindered.
Until next time…
Baily, Amy (1939). Jamaicanising Jamaica: Yams, Cocos, Plaintains, Bananas & Bush Tea. The Daily Gleaner, Saturday, August 26, 1939, pg. 35.
Bhide, Shreyas (2013). List of National Dishes Around the World.
Committee to Examine National Symbols and National Observances (1996). Report on National Symbols and National Observances. Kingston: Jamaica Information Service.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
The Gleaner, Thursday, February 29, 1996, pg. 11A