One of the things I love about Africa, both Congo and Burkina, is that there is FOOD growing wild all over the place! In America, we have been conditioned to think of factory farms or big industrial fishing ships being the source of most foods, or else on a smaller scale, little homestead gardens or maybe small-scale fishing boats harvesting from the sea. But in any case, the idea that you could just walk around and pick delicious food right off a tree, or off the ground, is generally limited to apples, berries and maybe fiddleheads.
But right outside my office there is this giant tree with these apple-sized fruits growing on it. I looked it up a few months ago, and saw that it was an ‘ackee’, a type of soapberry tree related to the longan or lychee. But what I mostly remembered was some blurb about it being poisonous and inedible without careful preparation, or something like that. So I generally avoided it and just watched the thousands of green fruits on it get bigger and rounder.
Then about two weeks ago, the bright red fruits started to crack open. They have three lobes, like a banana does, and inside are three shiny dark seeds with a big yellow custardy-looking mass attached at the base. Then one day, one of the workers came up with a few of the seeds in his hand, chewing away, an offered me one. I figured, what the hell, and broke off the custardy base and ate it.
Quite nice! It had a firm texture, like tofu maybe, and a slightly nutty flavor. Not bad, really, and for the next few weeks, whenever there were ripe fruits within reach, I’d harvest them and eat the piece at the base of the seed. I’ve learned since then that it’s called the ‘aril’.
Today, with some free time and curiosity, I did some googling. Turns out that this particular tree is native to West Africa, but ended up in Jamaica somehow where the aril gets cooked up with dried salted fish to make “Ackee and saltfish”, which is sort of a national dish.
So armed with the knowledge that this is imminently edible, I decided to cook some up and try it. Since Ackee and Saltfish is well-known, and I have never had it, I had no desire to try to replicate it, but instead I figured I’d just invent my own dish.
So I went out and collected a good double-fist sized bunch of seeds from ripe pods, and brought them home. It’s very easy to get the seeds out of the pods (they pretty much fall out in your hands), and then pulling the aril off the seed is only a tiny bit harder. Once the aril is stripped off, you have to pull this tiny little thread out (like the beard in a mussel), and then boil the arils for about 10 minutes to leech out the poisons.
I’m not really convinced about how toxic they are, because I’ve been munching them down by the fistful for two weeks, but hey….that’s what all the literature says. Maybe I’ve been incredibly lucky, or have not reached a lethal dose. I’ll be more careful, especially when you read how this blog post ends.
While the arils were boiling, I chopped up some onion, green pepper and garlic and sautéed them in butter. I also threw a handful of frozen peas in with the arils to cook up, but in retrospect that was probably dumb since the purpose of boiling them was to leech out the poisons, not boil up some peas in the concentrated poison water.
Anyway, when the arils had cooked for 10 minutes, I strained off the aril/pea mix, dumped it in with the onion/garlic/pepper mix, added some red hot pepper from Congo, and sautéed the whole thing for a few more minutes.
The arils had changed from a firm little mass to being very soft and tender. In fact, boiled and sautéed ackee arils are used as a scrambled egg substitute….they have just that texture.
When done, the arils took on a slight yellowy texture…like scrambled eggs…and I served them up. In a word…fantastic!! I can’t believe I’ve been eating them raw all this time, as the cooked ones are soft, creamy, slightly buttery, and with the same kind of delicate deliciousness as lobster or a great mozzarella cheese. The mixed veggie/ackee dish was just amazing, and I’ll be making it again, and a lot.
Anyway, ackee is banned in the US so I guess my friends there won’t be having any soon…but what a great surprise to find out just how delicious they are.