Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Ackee: Toxic or Treat?

August 27th, 2008 · 4 Comments

My next-door neighbor has an ackee tree that’s so prolific, there’s enough fruit for the neighbohood. (It’s pronounced AH-kee.) Unfortunately, only a few of us know what this tropical fruit is or its perils — nevermind how to cook it.

This is one of those “green, don’t touch it!” fruits – it must be fully ripened or it will make you horrifically ill.

The not-ripe fruit is at the top; the fully ripened stuff is on the left.

The not-ripe fruit is at the top; the fully ripened stuff is on the left.

Avis, my neighbor, pulls it down from the tree once it’s scarlet red, and lets it ripen on the back porch. She fights with a resident squirrel over it. She addresses him as “Mr. Squirrel” and he stands up on his hind legs right in front of her as though to assert his authority. She stands, hands akimbo, and in her lovely Jamaican lilt, lets him know that “I planted these ackee for me — not you! You can go on about your business.”

Once ripe, the fruit splits open, revealing the seeds (shiny black ovals in the photo) and the attached fruits. This can happen while still attached to the tree, but often as not, the wind has already knocked it to the ground.

Once they’re completely opened and not before, the seeds are pulled out attached to the flesh of the fruit. They’re discarded and the little fleshy brain-looking part, about the size of a giant lima bean, is left. It’s then pulled apart and cleaned of its strings and skin. Then it’s boiled very well, drained and comes out looking a bit like scrambled eggs.

In Jamaica, where much of the ackee in the U.S. comes from, it’s typically eaten in the national dish: with dried codfish that’s been soaked overnight, then sauteed altogether with tomatoes, onion and peppers — sometimes with a little pork fat. (It’s part of the lyrics to “Jamaica Farewell” — Harry Belafonte‘s classic.)

It takes a great deal of fruit to yield a dinner’s worth of ackee and cod, so it’s a precious thing to find ripe ackee. Then there’s that poisoning thing…though the antidote, I’m told, is ground koka nuts, made into a tea and consumed as quickly as possible after eating the green ackee. Death can result from green ackee, so it’s not something for amateurs to tangle with.

The ackee's flesh; the red seed pod and seeds are discarded.
The pale yellow ackee flesh shown at bottom; the red seed pod is discarded along with the seeds.                              (photo by Jimmy Barron)


Tags: Recipes: What's Cooking!

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Aug 29, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    I have never heard of this… guess the old adage is true, ‘you learn something new every day’!

    Quick question, what does it actually taste like?

  • 2 jimmyb // Aug 31, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I’m glad that I didn’t decide to sample the unripened ackee…blaaahhuck!! jb

  • 3 Brooke // Jul 9, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Hi my name is Brooke and my brother,his friend Blake and I we went on a hike and we found an ackee seed I looked it up because I thought the seed looks weird

  • 4 Brooke // Jul 9, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    P.S. thank you for listening


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