It was a common joke to say that I treat my Dad’s house like my grocery store – specifically the Chinese and Jamaican goods that my Uncle always stocks. (And the day I learn to tell one preserved mustard green in a vacuum pack from another, I will stop this practice.) So, the other night, when it was late and the family were chatting away and the subject of how Dad cooked Jamaica’s (unofficial) national dish came up, I got the inevitable teasing that I wanted to know if that was breakfast and if it was worthwhile my staying over for the night. I maintain that it was NOT a self-serving question, but a genuine exchange of information that is a cornerstone of our national and familial culture.
Food is always a good topic to discuss for Chinese and Jamaicans and if you put the two together (Chinese Jamaican or Jamaican Chinese), you double the subject matter available to you! In fact, I guarantee that if you mention this blog to a Chinese or Jamaican, you have enough conversation to last minimum 45 minutes and if you are in the person’s home, you will be offered at least a package or something to look at if not to taste.
We had just gotten a bit of breadfruit (don’t use the wiki site to look this up – go to this one) and the natural thing to go with this is ackee and saltfish. My Dad said he would cook that. Now, I can’t recall my Dad ever cooking ackee (the “and saltfish” part is understood – leave it off to sound more native). EVER. He usually cooks North American foods – BBQ, ribs, lasagna, etc. My mom always did the Chinese cooking and my uncle did the Jamaican cooking. So, naturally, I had to ask if he knew HOW to cook ackee. With two of my uncles sitting right there, this led to a discussion of everything from which brand to buy (at $10 a tin, you have to make sure you get the right one), to how to rinse the ackee to how to marry the ackee with the saltfish. There was also a revelation and instruction to Uncle L that no, not everyone mashes up their ackee so it really does matter what brand you buy, thank you very much!
I certainly learnt a lot in the conversation not the least of which was that the men in the family did most of the cooking and were quite serious about it. They weren’t really talking about recipes; they were saying to me “here’s our culture. This is what we know and who we are. Don’t forget. And p.s., we’re family” – no hugging required.
And for those who are detailed oriented:
Brands of ackee – usually we bought Grace’s because their ackee held together well, but now they white label their products, so the firmness is pretty much the same as the others, except my uncles don’t buy Mr. Goudas for some reason and butter ackee can get mixed in with others so be prepared for it to fall apart
How to rinse – range of techniques; if you boil your saltfish instead of just soaking, you can use the same water after taking the saltfish out – either keep it boiling and blanch the ackee, turn off the stove and just drop the ackee in the hot water or pour the hot water over the ackee
How to combine – after sauteeing the saltfish with onion (all agree), tomatoe (disagreement there) and/or bacon (options available here for availability and vegetarianism) in a little or a lot of oil, you can add the ackee and turn off the stove and mix; pour saltfish mixture over ackee in dish and mix; add ackee and saute further; add ackee, turn down heat, cover and let simmer
So, you see why it was even later when the conversation finished and I had to stay over (I tend to crash my car when I’m tired) and have breadfruit and ackee and saltfish the next morning?