Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica but it is native to the tropical forests of West Africa. It is believed that samples of the tree were brought to the Caribbean island in the 18th century and it has been there ever since.
The name Ackee has African origins and is derived from the word Ankye from the Twi language of Ghana. Its botanical name pays tribute to Captain William Bligh, who brought the plants from Jamaica to England in 1793 and introduced it to the Western world.
Since its introduction to Jamaican culture, Ackee has become an integral part of its history due to its role in Ackee and Saltfish, the country’s national dish. Today, it is exported around the world and enjoyed by countless people all over.
Ackee is classified as an evergreen tree, which means that it has foliage throughout the year. It can grow up to a height of 25 feet, despite having a short trunk. The crown can grow very large and bloom luminous green leaves. It typically bears fruit twice a year, with the first harvesting season from January to March, and the second from June to August.
The fruit typically grows in clusters on the branches. It has a characteristic red skin that when opened, exposes three large black seeds. Great care has to be taken when harvesting the fruit because the arils, the yellow, fleshy portion attached to each seed, are the only edible portions. The rest contain toxins that can cause fatal side effects.
The taste of Ackee is often described to be mild with a buttery and creamy texture. Due to these characteristics, Ackee is usually used as a vegetable in cooking, as opposed to a fruit. Therefore, it is used in many savoury dishes, because it goes well with other vegetables, meat and fish.
The fruit can be cooked in various ways:
- Fritters ‐ Great as an afternoon snack.
- Soups ‐ Create hot, creamy Ackee soup by mixing it with chicken stock, heavy cream, tomatoes and peppers for spiciness.
- Quiches ‣ These are open pastries packed with a savoury filling. You can mix Ackee and various vegetables to create tasty quiches.
The export of Ackee to the United States had a rocky start due to quality issues. It was banned for many years because it contains a toxin called hypoglycin A. When ingested, this toxin causes several side effects such as vomiting, drowsiness and muscular exhaustion. More serious side effects include prostration, and possibly even coma or death.
The toxin is largely found in unripe fruits that are harvested early. Specifically, it is in the seeds, arils and the rind. If any of these parts get into the packaging, the product is contaminated. However, if the Ackee is harvested at the right time, the toxin level significantly drops, making it safe for consumption.
Ackee is not just popular for its taste and usefulness in culinary creations. It has potential health benefits that may help with the following:
- Bowel Regulation ‐ The Ackee fruit is rich in fibre which can help regulate bowel movements by adding bulk to your stool and quickening movement through your intestines. Fibre can also help lower your risk of bloating, cramping, constipation and inflammation of the colon. It may also help reduce bad cholesterol levels, thereby helping boost heart health.
- Blood Pressure ‐ Ackee is rich in potassium which is a known vasodilator. It works by dilating your blood vessels so that your cardiovascular system will not work too hard. This can help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and damage to your blood vessels.
- Blood Circulation ‐ Aside from helping lowering blood pressure, Ackee can help improve your blood circulation. It is rich in iron, which is crucial because it helps deliver oxygen efficiently around your body. The iron content may help with the symptoms of anaemia as well, such as weakness, light headedness and cognitive issues.
- Immune System ‐ Ackee was originally used to help alleviate common illnesses. It is a great source of vitamin C, a nutrient that can help boost your immune system which helps protect your body from various diseases.
The Ackee tree is mainly enjoyed for its fruit which can be used in various types of dishes, but the other parts of the tree have various uses:
- Tools ‐ In Ghana, the wood is used for making oars and casks.
- Perfumes ‐ The flowers are used as an ingredient for perfumes.
- Medicines ‐ Seed extracts and aril mixtures of the fruit have been used to help treat dysentery and kill parasites.
- Furniture ‐ The wood is known to be termite‐resistant, making it great for use in the manufacture of furniture.