DESPITE being surrounded by the gorgeous Caribbean Sea and constantly supplied by delicious
fresh fish, Jamaicans traditionally consume pickled and salted fish. This legacy comes from the awful transatlantic slave trade; the food given to the slaves was different from what the colonial masters ate. Of course, these creative Africans turned something negative into a positive and this was how Jamaican cuisine developed over the years.
Our beloved national dish comprises of salted cod, which is not native to our waters and imported mostly from Northern Europe, and the ackee, a fruit eaten by no other nation and poisonous if consumed when unripe. It takes an awful lot of guts and courage to have come up with this recipe and I thank the slave who did. For me personally, ackee and saltfish is symbolic of Jamaicans not letting hardship get in the way but overcoming it by any means necessary. Salted cod is not only eaten with ackee, but paired with popular vegetables like callaloo and cabbage, or simply sautéed with onions, tomatoes and hot pepper.
Mackerel is also popular with Jamaicans. It is available fresh, but most Jamaicans prefer the pickled and salted kind which is the basis for rundown, a breakfast and brunch staple. Mackerel is combined with seasonings and coconut milk for a tasty, flavourful dish. Tinned mackerel is also cheap and typically comes in a tomato sauce and folks pair it with rice, boiled green bananas or dumplings. Both mackerel and salted cod go well with breadfruit, particularly when it is roasted, the bread-like consistency and taste a perfect counterpoint to the saltiness of the fish. This fruit was transported to the West Indies via Tahiti in the South Pacific from Captain Bligh, a famous British naval officer in 1793 on his ship, the HMS Providence. Breadfruit was easy to grow in these climes and was a cheap source of food to feed the slaves. Now breadfruit is so integral to Jamaican cuisine.
In the past, Jamaicans also consumed a lot of red herring. Nowadays, we mostly consume red herring as a delicious spread, Solomon Gundy. This pungent and fiery hot paste is made with red herrings, onions, Scotch bonnet pepper, oil and vinegar. To temper it, some people combine it with cream cheese. Most of all, it is enjoyed with good old "tough" crackers, as we affectionately call water crackers and it is great to pair with rum cocktails as rum can cut through the richness of the spice and oiliness of the fish.
These preserved fish were typically affordable, but now, as with most food prices, they are not as inexpensive as they once were but still purchased frequently and put to use for a quick meal. Many top local chefs are using them in novel ways where retro meets modern, so you will find these items used in non-traditional ways in pastas, ceviches and pastry dishes from the most talented amongst us. Salted cod, mackerel, and herrings came from humble and controversial beginnings, but today they have an important place in the national palate.
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JuicyChef's Saltfish with Escoveitch-style Pickled Onions
My auntie Winnie in London is famous in our family for her chunks of saltfish with pickled onions and hot peppers. This is very rustic and goes well with fried dumplings. Sometimes the simple dishes taste the nicest. This is my version of what she does; of course, it isn't quite as good as my auntie's but it's tasty nonetheless.
1 large onion, sliced
1 large Scotch bonnet pepper, roughly cut
6 pimento grains, crushed
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
125ml/1/2 cup white cane vinegar
125ml/ 1/2 cup water
Vegetable oil, for frying.
Soak saltfish overnight, changing water at least twice.
Pat dry and roughly cut into chunks, removing any bones you can.
In a saucepan combine onions, Scotch bonnet, pimento, sugar, salt, water and vinegar, bring to a boil and simmer until onions are cooked through, set aside and cool down.
In a medium frying pan, add vegetable oil and dry the saltfish chunks until “dry”, as Jamaicans say.
Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.
Transfer to another plate and pour over the pickled onions.
Serve with fried dumplings, roast breadfruit or harddough bread.
Who needs caviar when we have our local Solomon Gundy? A few years ago in Stockholm, I enjoyed herrings with schnapps and was telling my hosts there that Jamaicans loved herring too, but in a spread form, and that we ate it typically with strong rum drinks. Some great local brands are on the market, but this classic is easy to make yourself. The smoky taste comes from roasting. Serve with good old crackers.
500g/1lb red herring
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeds removed and finely chopped
2 tbsps white cane vinegar 1 tbsp vegetable oil Dash of Jamaican rum
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Lay herrings on a baking tray and roast until cooked through (about 15 minutes).
Cool down and flake with your fingers, removing any bones you can.
Add to a food processor with onion, Scotch bonnet, vinegar, oil and dash of rum and process to a purée.