The fruit is red on the outside, turning bright red when ripe. Seams on the outside mark 3 separate pods of yellow fruit inside. The seams split wide open when the fruit is ready to be picked, exposing the seeds and cream coloured, spongy flesh around the seeds. Never open a fruit yourself; it has to have opened on its own on the tree, or it will be very poisonous to eat.
Each of the 3 pods inside has a large shiny black seed in it. Only the cream-coloured, fleshy pulp around the seeds is edible. The pulp looks somewhat like brains. Never eat any of the pink flesh, or the seeds, as they are poisonous.
In cooking, Ackee is treated like a vegetable, as opposed to a fruit. It is often cooked with salted cod fish and onions, in the dish called “Ackee and Saltfish”, as in the Harry Belafonte song. Cooked this way, some say that it tastes to them like eggs; it is the contact with the fish that brings out this taste.
It is sold fresh in markets in Jamaica, and canned in brine elsewhere.
The sale of Ackee under any form, canned or fresh, was banned in America in 1970 (though individuals still smuggled in their own for personal use.) Faced with a growing tide of illegal importation, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided in July 2000 to set standards and to designate companies in Jamaica who could produce canned Ackee that they would deem safe for import. To be certified, the producers must, among other things, ensure that the fruit is neither unripe or overripe, and that no seeds, membrane or outer rind (which never stop being dangerous) are in the canned product. Out of the 16 canned Ackee producers in Jamaica, the first two to be approved in 2000 were Canco Ltd. and Ashman Food Products. Approved since then have been Tijule Company Ltd, West Best Foods Ltd, Southern Fruits and Food Processors Ltd and Island Packers Ltd (as of 2004.)
Canada and the UK have never attempted to control the import.
For the latest status, you may wish to check with FDA. Neither the British nor Canadian Departments of Heath list any information about Ackee on their web sites.
The fruit must be vigorously boiled to remove the toxins from the fruit. The cooking water must be discarded, as the purpose of the boiling is to leach the toxins into the water.
The pods, the seeds, the membrane and the rind remain poisonous, so discard them in a place where pets, animals or children can’t get at them.
When working with fresh Ackee, make sure that you are not using any whose pods have been forced open. Remove the fruit from the pods, boil until just a bit tender. Then drain the water away, rinse the fruit, and boil again in lightly salted water until tender.
Not all canners parboil and treat the fruit before canning. If it has been, it can be used straight from the can — just drain and discard the liquid. If you don’t know for sure, you drain and discard water from the tin, rinse, boil in fresh water until tender, then discard the boiling water and rinse again.
Unripe Ackee can cause “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness Syndrome”, a serious form of poisoning that many people die from. Death occurs within 24 hours.
The tree is native to West Africa, and was probably brought over to the Caribbean on slave ships. The tree’s fruit was promoted by a man named Thomas Clarke, who planted it in eastern Jamaica in 1778.
In Haiti, the Ackee tree is grown solely as an ornamental. In the winter of 2000/2001, Northern Haiti lost many of its normal crops to floods. Many people turned to Ackee fruit, but because they didn’t know how to handle or cook it properly, over 70 people died from eating the fruit.
Literature & Lore
“Ackee rice, salt fish are nice and the rum is fine any time of year…”
Ackee is fried after being boiled, and when cooked some think it looks like scrambled eggs. Thus the origin of many of its French and Spanish names throughout the Caribbean.
Captain William Bligh (yes, that one) brought Ackee to Kew Gardens in England in 1773, so the Latin name is based on his name.