I'm never being overzealous when I exalt oxtails as the gold standard of all offals, even more golden than my beloved chitterlings. If a cook manages to meld the right herbs, spices, burnt sugar and broad beans, and braises the meat until it's tender enough to slurp from the bone with minimal effort, leaving your lips and fingertips sticky from its gelatinous residue, it can truly induce gastronomical euphoria. I've even gone further with my praise, repeatedly claiming that a proper pot of oxtails is a sure-fire way to separate a great Jamaican restaurant from a mediocre one.
Curry goat is another Jamaican dish that I'm always jonesing over. I wholeheartedly believe curry goat, along with cricket — the sport, not the insect — and Clarks Wallabees are the only positive vestiges of British colonialism in Jamaica. However, oxtails aren't exclusively Jamaican, and neither is curry goat. Other cultures have been enjoying variations of both oxtails and goat for centuries: the hearty Roman stew coda alla vaccinara and kari kambing, popular in Indonesia, where they refer to goat as mutton.
Jerk chicken, the fiery staple probably most synonymous with Jamaican cuisine, has been so diluted that the word "jerk" has slowly and sadly become interchangeable with "spicy." It's gone so mainstream that you can get it on a Caesar salad at your local Mellow Mushroom, in the food court of an Ikea in the suburbs of London, and now in the wildly popular Alfredo-ish Rasta Pasta (which is also on the menu at Jamaican Jerk Shack).
However, there's one dish that reigns over oxtails, curry goat and jerk chicken as the national dish of Jamaica — ackee and saltfish. And I found it, accidentally, in a strip mall on Lee Highway while trying to see if the Dosa Hut had mango lassi, which they did. I hate throwing around the word "authentic," but ackee and saltfish is the absolute barometer of judging the authenticity of a Jamaican restaurant, the same way a Mexican restaurant's "authenticity meter" would shoot through the roof if it offered chongos Zamoranos, whose spongy dessert weirdness will leave you mindblown if you've only ever had flan or tres leches cake.
Whenever I asked Paula Dailey, the owner of Jamaican Jerk Shack, about ackee and saltfish, a smile crept onto her face, and I could tell that the mere mention of it conjured memories of her childhood growing up on Whitehall Avenue in Kingston, Jamaica, and the ackee tree in her grandmother's backyard.
"I remember as a child when we were broke, everybody in the family would pool some money together — $3 here and $5 there — until we had enough to run a boat," Dailey said.
"Run a boat" is Jamaican patois for "cooking a meal," and even though she's been cooking ackee and saltfish since she was 10, her older brother, Ian, usually did the cooking and still does when she goes back to Jamaica to visit.
To the uncultured eye, ackee — a fruit with origins in Ghana — looks like softly scrambled eggs. And to the cautious eater, the idea of consuming it might be intimidating, especially knowing if eaten unripe, it could be poisonous. That's the reason the Food and Drug Administration has banned fresh ackee from import to the U.S. since 1973, which is also the reason if you eat it here, it more than likely came from a can.
Plentiful cod, fished from Canadian waters like the Labrador Sea, were introduced to Jamaica during the slave trade and salted for the sake of preservation. When it comes to how these two things ended up on the same plate, it's as widely speculated as to how fried chicken and waffles became a beloved duet.
Like meatloaf, chicken parmesan, candied yams or anything else we cook, the variations are endless, dependent on taste and tendencies of who's cooking. The same applies for ackee and saltfish.
Fresh thyme, Jamaica's workhorse herb, is the usual throughline, so is the heat from the ever-present Scotch bonnet peppers that linger underneath the pronounced flavors of minced garlic and onions.
Then there's a medley of roughly chopped red, yellow and green bell peppers — a color combination that not only lends vibrancy to the plate but is also a symbol of the island's Rastafarian culture.
Dailey's version leaves the ackee as whole as possible, and the saltfish are folded in. Even though she boils the fillets of saltfish prior, its salinity is still pronounced and is the yin to the ackee's creamy yang. Everything is cooked to order and as cliche as it sounds, with love, and isn't available within at least a 120-mile radius that I could find. Even more of a reason to pull into this strip mall on Lee Highway.
What: Ackee and saltfish
Where: Jamaican Jerk Shack, 6940 Lee Highway, Suite 104.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Other fare: Oxtails, curry goat and jerk chicken.
Ambiance: Tunes from Beres Hammond, Popcaan and, of course, Bob Marley fill the colorful space with a festive vibe.
Price range: $4 to $25.
Get in touch: 423-206-4525.
Contact Andre James at 423-757-6327 or [email protected].