Reggae music floats through a comfortably chic lime green dining room as a woman sits at the bar, waiting for her lunchtime order of steak and plantains. "Can I get fried plantains with that steak instead of stewed plantains?" she asks the server, who has gone behind the bar to retrieve a table's drink order. "Sure," the server says casually. Every ten minutes or so, plates of braised oxtail with kale, jerk chicken wraps and tamarind glazed chicken wings leave the kitchen, carried by the same server to tables of guests who momentarily pause their conversation to receive their order. No one is in a hurry.
This isn't a lunch counter or a rum bar in the Caribbean—this is Vital Dining in Montclair, New Jersey, a suburb located 20 miles west of New York City.
In the kitchen, Vital's executive chef Kwame Williams is preparing Jamaica's national dish, ackee and saltfish. Diners at the Caribbean restaurant are often familiar with Jamaican classics like jerk chicken, beef patties, and stewed oxtail, which can all be found on the menu, but Williams wants to introduce them to other dishes that show the breadth of the island's cuisine. "I've been on my soap box to broaden people's perspective and understanding of Jamaican culture and food," Williams says as he spoons the sautéed, golden yellow ackee fruit into a bowl with pieces of boiled saltfish and green and red peppers stewed with Scotch bonnets, tomatoes, and onions.
If the history of Jamaica could be eaten, it would taste a lot like ackee and saltfish.
Ackee, a fruit that looks similar to an apple or pear when it's growing, was brought to the island from Western Africa in the 1700s and has since become one of Jamaica's biggest exports. "Unripened ackee is poisonous, so it comes to the US ripened, in a can," Williams explains. The texture of the sauteed fruit is similar to scrambled eggs and the flavor is rich and buttery, making it a favorite ingredient of vegetarians and Rastafarians on the island, he says.
RECIPE: Ackee and Saltfish
Saltfish, or salted cod, came to the island via the slave trade due to the need for an inexpensive protein that could survive the long trips across the Atlantic without spoiling. "Saltfish was how they preserved cod before refrigeration. Cod was plentiful back then," Williams says. On many Caribbean islands, saltfish has become an ingrained part of the cuisine, used in a variety of dishes and preparations like stews, filling for patties, and sautées with vegetables.
The combination of these two ingredients and the addition of island-grown bell peppers and Scotch bonnets became a popular breakfast dish in Jamaica. "Like Americans eat cornflakes or steak and eggs for breakfast, ackee and saltfish is a staple Jamaican breakfast dish," Williams says.
Dishes like ackee and saltfish, steeped in history and geography, have a way of traveling with immigrants to their new homes where they provide comfort for homesick families. "Sunday breakfast was our day for ackee and saltfish," Williams recalls of his family. His parents are Jamaican and on Sundays, he and his siblings gathered at their family table in New Jersey for a saltfish and ackee breakfast. The dish and his memories are intertwined, which is why it's such an important part of Jamaican cuisine for him. "I think one of the reasons why it's the national dish is because of the history and that family aspect," he says. "If you speak to any Jamaican, they've eaten ackee and saltfish many times for breakfast with boiled bananas or yams with their families."
At Vital, diners can taste the dish in one of two ways: the traditional way, or as a dish with sautéed ackee stewed with bell peppers, tomato, Scotch bonnets, and herbs, topped with a seared cod cake bound together with pounded yams. "It still has the flavor of the traditional elements but it's my take on it," Williams says. He hopes that by expanding diners' definition of Jamaican food, he's able to show them that Caribbean food in general is a cuisine that has nuance and variation. "The Caribbean gets lumped into one type of cuisine but every single island has its niche," he says. "I can have roti in Trinidad or Jamaica and it's going to taste very different."
With his take on Jamaica's national dish, he hopes to introduce diners to a different take on Jamaican cuisine and to a dish that's central part of the country's cuisine—and that perhaps ackee and saltfish will become as beloved among his non-Caribbean customers as jerk chicken and beef patties. "Jamaican culture is so diverse and saltfish and ackee speaks directly to that," he says. "It's entrenched in Jamaican history and culture. I think everyone should try it."