Ackee and saltfish are undeniably linked to Jamaica, but how did that come to be?
That’s one of the many questions that constantly swirl around Melissa Thompson’s head – a food writer and cookbook author who says she’s “always been interested in the stories behind food”.
Jamaican food – where her father is from – particularly piques her interest. “Ackee and saltfish just rolls off the tongue, it’s such a classic dish. But those things are quite odd, when you think about it – there’s ackee, then there’s saltfish. They’re not necessarily a natural pairing,” she muses.
“How did they become, who thought to put them on a plate together? It works so well, but obviously everything has a beginning.”
Thompson, 41, was surprised to learn ackee isn’t originally from Jamaica, despite being synonymous with the country’s cuisine (it’s actually native to West Africa, and came to the Caribbean through the slave trade). “I was looking for a book that satisfied my curiosity about the history of Jamaican food,” she says, but “it didn’t really exist” – so she decided to write Motherland. She refers to her debut as a “cookbook with this historical narrative”, with Jamaican recipes interwoven with powerful essays about the history of the country, particularly the impact of slavery and colonisation.
She first learned about Jamaican food from her father, who she describes as “a magpie when it comes to flavours”. He was in the navy and picked up lots of different cuisines from his travels, but it’s his Jamaican cooking that seems to have stuck with Thompson the most.
“He’s a very poor delegator when it comes to cooking, so I just observed,” she remembers fondly. “Sometimes, I got to help make the dumplings and all that stuff, but really I’d watch him – maybe I’d flake the saltfish.
It was when Thompson moved out of home and went to uni that she started cooking the dishes of her childhood. “When the people who cook the food you’ve grown up with are no longer living with you, you have to cook it for yourself, to satisfy the craving.”
But because Thompson wasn’t allowed to do much in the kitchen growing up, she learned these dishes more by osmosis – “by watching and taking it in”, she says.
And she got to experience Jamaican food first-hand when visiting the island. “Food is everywhere in Jamaica, whether it’s getting cooked, or whether it’s just growing,” she says. “To me, ackee had always come in a tin, and it’s always expensive – like £5 for a tin, so it’s quite a precious thing. I would never be allowed to deal with the ackee, because I’d stir it too enthusiastically and break it all up.
“But the first time we went to Jamaica, it was in season, and it blew my mind to hold an ackee pod, and see the ackee fruit – it’s beautiful. I couldn’t believe the ground was littered with them – I wanted to take them all, pick them all up.
“Food in Jamaica makes you realise how brilliantly people in the UK do it – how brilliantly my dad has always done it.” Jamaican immigrants to the UK had to learn how to recreate their cuisine with limited access to the ingredients of their homeland, and this really surprised Thompson when she visited the island. “Suddenly, things that are so precious and scarce in the UK are in beautiful abundance in Jamaica, it’s really verdant – my dad would tell me these stories about growing up, climbing trees and eating mangoes to his heart’s content. For me, mango has always been one of my most favourite fruits – we’d go to London and buy four, because they were quite expensive. You’d have one each, and you’d savour this mango – and all of a sudden there was more mango than you can possibly eat [in Jamaica].
“It’s the same, but obviously massively different, because you’re seeing the cuisine at its source, at the country of origin. In the environment where these dishes were created, you get to understand it a bit better.”
So, what’s the one thing people tend to get wrong about Jamaican food? Thompson suggests there’s “a massive misunderstanding of what Jamaican food is about”. She says: “People think it’s quite one-note, they think it’s more about jerk – jerk is amazing, but there is so much more to Jamaican food than jerk.
“I feel sorry for other Caribbean islands, because when people talk about Caribbean food, they think about jerk, they think about Jamaican food. Actually, it’s so diverse – it’s such a rich, diverse cuisine across the Caribbean.”
And Thompson really wants people to stop messing around with classic recipes. “Sometimes, you’ll see recipes from very established chefs – who should know better – it’s like jerk with different chillies, whether it’s jalapenos or random things – it’s like, where does that come from? I don’t know whether it’s trying to differentiate, so it’s not copying someone else – but jerk has to be Scotch bonnet.”
This is another big part of Motherland: “Know where the food has come from, know the origins, and know how it’s supposed to be before you start playing with it.”
Motherland traces the history of Jamaica through the Spanish settlers and the slave route from West Africa, through to becoming a free society. For Thompson, “You can’t tell the story of Jamaican food without talking about slavery – that’s just the way it is.”
‘Motherland’ by Melissa Thompson (published by Bloomsbury Publishing, £26; photography by Patricia Niven), available now.