Most of us know that although we think of the tomato as a vegetable, it's 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 it plays a big part in Jamaica's national dish: ackee and saltfish.
Ackee fruit grows on evergreen trees and is available throughout the year, most abundantly in Jamaica. Its fruit is fully developed, matured, ripe and suitable for cooking when the pods are bright red and they split open easily to expose the edible fruit inside. The pod opens to expose three or four cream-colored sections of flesh called arilli sitting atop a bed of large, glossy black seeds.
Cleaning and Preparing Ackee
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.
Ackee cooks up quickly; it's easy to tell when it's done 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 ackee is cooked with salt fish, it should always be the last ingredient added to the pot. When it's fully cooked, ackee becomes delicate; it crushes and melts easily.
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 that is slightly bitter. This bitterness is very subtle and can usually only be detected by a trained and discerning palate.
Ackee production is widespread in Jamaica, and the country cans and exports the fruit all over the world. You might be hard-pressed to find it fresh in the U.S. The FDA bans the importation of fresh ackee, and even much of the canned product unless it's been "green listed," meaning that the FDA has inspected it and found it to be safe.
Why all this precaution? Unripe ackee, including both pods and seeds, can cause something called Jamaican vomiting sickness due to its hypoglycin content. Hypoglycin is an unnatural, non-proteinogenic amino acid, and it's not destroyed in the canning process—thus the semi-ban on canned ackee in the U.S. This is a risk 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. Stir the cooking pot only once and gently after you've added the ackee so as not to break up the flesh.