Although the tomato is used like a vegetable, it's actually a fruit. It's the same with the ackee. Technically, it's a fruit, but it's cooked and used as a vegetable. In fact, it's the national fruit of Jamaica and plays a starring role in the country's national dish: ackee and saltfish.
Use: as a vegetable
Varieties: fresh, canned, frozen
What Is Ackee Fruit?
Ackee fruit grows on evergreen trees and is available throughout the year, most abundantly in Jamaica, where it is so revered as the national fruit. It grows on a tropical evergreen tree that's native to West Africa, and also goes by the names achee, akee, and ackee apple.
Its fruit is fully developed, ripe, and suitable for cooking when the pods are bright red and they split open easily to expose the edible fruit inside. Jamaicans will often say that the fruit will “yawn” or “smile”—open naturally, on its own—before it's ready to be picked from the tree. The pod opens to expose three or four cream-colored sections of flesh called arils underneath large, glossy black seeds. The arils are what you eat.
Ackee requires a little bit of prep work before it can be eaten, but it's not strenuous. Simply remove the black seeds from the flesh, along with the red lining on each section of flesh. Discard these parts; what you want is the flesh itself. Rinse the flesh in tap water and drain it well before you use it in cooking.
How to Cook With Ackee
In preparation for use in the national dish, ackee and saltfish, the fruit is usually boiled gently for up to half an hour. The prepared fruit is removed from the water and usually sautéed with onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, allspice, and Scotch bonnet peppers, and then mixed with salt fish. It's easy to tell when ackee is cooked because the flesh will turn from a cream color to bright yellow. Remove it from the heat source as soon as it turns yellow to avoid overcooking it. When it's fully cooked, ackee becomes delicate; it crushes and falls apart easily.
Ackee can also be used in soups and desserts such as cakes and custards.
What Does It Taste Like?
People outside the Caribbean who may not be familiar with ackee often remark that it looks like scrambled eggs. This isn't far off the mark, but its taste is about as far from scrambled eggs as you can get. Although it is creamy in texture and delicate like eggs, it possesses a finishing taste with a slight bitterness. When baked, some say it takes on an almost nutty flavor.
Where to Buy Ackee
Ackee production is widespread in Jamaica, and the country cans and exports the fruit all over the world. You aren't likely to find it fresh in the United States, as the FDA bans the importation of fresh ackee and even much of the canned product unless it's been "green listed," which means the FDA has inspected it and found it to be safe.
All this precaution is due to the fact that unripe ackee, including both pods and seeds, can cause something called Jamaican vomiting sickness due to its hypoglycin content. Hypoglycin is an unnatural amino acid that isn't destroyed in the canning process—thus the semi-ban on canned ackee in the United States. This risk is known only to unripe ackee. If the pods are bright red and split open easily, they're typically ripe and illness is not a risk.
If you do manage to purchase canned ackee, be sure to drain it completely. It's already cooked, but it's usually packed in brine. After you've added it to whatever you're cooking, gently stir the pot only once so as to not break up the flesh.
Canned ackee will last for a long time. Fresh ackee can be frozen, but blanching is recommended beforehand. When you're ready to use it, simply defrost it and add to your recipe as indicated.
Prepared ackee, such as an in ackee and saltfish, will keep for 3 to 4 days in the fridge.