“All saltfish sweet” | Cookup

Once upon a time, it was what some only deigned to eat. Vaughn Stafford Gray explores how saltfish has since come to reign supreme as a savoury staple in Caribbean homes and restaurants

  • Photo by JustRocky09/Shutterstock.com

I was nine when the Mighty Sparrow — the “calypso king of the world” — released “Saltfish”. I vividly remember singing the lyrics with my whole prepubescent chest whilst wiggling my likkle waist. The innuendos were clearly lost on me. Thirty-one years later, the lyrics popped back into my mind as I thought of how to begin this Cookup story.

Blushing aside, the song’s lyrics (masterful poetry, by the way) reflect the many ways in which saltfish is vital to the Caribbean. The refrain — Saltfish / Big money does run behind it / Saltfish — contains some of the most accurate words ever written and sung.

The Caribbean imports over 52 million pounds of saltfish from Norway annually. The Dominican Republic takes more than half of that to feed their roughly 11 million nationals. Jamaica is the second highest consumer of saltfish per capita globally, second only to Portugal.

A quantitative study of how Jamaicans consume saltfish, conducted by the Norwegian Seafood Council in 2022, revealed that the average Jamaican household eats saltfish about nine times a month — a little more than twice a week.

But how did we get here? How does a product where the main ingredient doesn’t swim in our waters, and the majority of which the Caribbean imports from Europe, become such an integral part of our culinary history, culture, and diets? We all know the answer. Say it with me — colonisation.

The plantocracy used saltfish as a cheap way to feed the enslaved. Ships, mainly from Canada, would trade cod in America for Caribbean rum, sugar, molasses, and salt.

“Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are the two Canadian provinces from which saltfish first came to Jamaica,” wrote notable Jamaican literary scholar Carolyn Cooper in 2017 (a pivotal year to discuss the future of saltfish in the region). “Like breadfruit, it was cheap food for enslaved Africans in the early days.”

On the plantations, those who it fed had to figure out how to use the product to sustain and nourish themselves. But those recipes (stew saltfish, saltfish and breadfruit, ackee and saltfish, buljol, etc), borne out of necessity, endured after Emancipation.

But that survival, too, had a salty past.


I remember when folks regarded saltfish as “poor people’s food”. I was born in the early eighties, and research shows that this sentiment predates the independence of each Caribbean nation.

The 2022 Dublin Gastronomy Symposium had the theme “food and movement”. Trinibagonian Shrinagar Francis is a London-based food anthropologist who presented at the conference. In her presentation about the journey of saltfish across the Atlantic to the West Indies, she noted that saltfish that was once “grudgingly fed to the enslaved now offers a destigmatised consumption experience”.

Over the past 20 years, especially in the last decade, saltfish has evolved into five-star Caribbean cuisine. As Cooper commented, “The expression ‘saltfish fi shingle house’ confirms how inexpensive it used to be. Not so these days. Saltfish is gourmet food, more costly than fresh fish.” What a journey!

At The Tryall Club — one of Jamaica’s toniest and most exclusive resorts, which uses some 40 pounds of saltfish per week — Executive Chef Andrea Jolly uses saltfish in excitingly creative ways. One of his popular dishes is zucchini flowers stuffed with saltfish, served with ackee and organic greens. He kindly shared the recipe with Cookup.

“What sets this dish apart and makes it atypical is the combination of unique ingredients,” said Jolly, “[creating] a captivating and unexpected culinary experience.”

Human culture and development are inextricably linked to foodways. Our dishes have travelled and evolved across geography and generations. In fact, there’s a term for it — “edible genealogy”.

From the palms of the enslaved to the tables of the poor, from market stalls to supermarket shelves, from stovetops in homes to five-star kitchens, the journey of saltfish is indeed epic. And it proves that our Caribbean culinary legacies have always fuelled the incomes of faraway lands.

But whenever the price tag of saltfish stings, remember that one pound of saltfish can stretch and feed many mouths when cooked. Moreover, as Sparrow sang, All saltfish sweet.


Zucchini flowers with saltfish

Courtesy Chef Andrea Jolly, Executive Chef, The Tryall Club (Jamaica)

Ingredients

For the zucchini flowers
15g of butter, melted
50g of Grana Padano, grated
Black Pepper

For the ackee
250g of ackee
30g of butter
15g of mixed organic herbs (thyme, oregano, chives)
25g red onion, diced

For the saltfish
500g of salt cod fillet
2 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1L milk
1L water
100ml of sunflower oil

For the salad
1 radicchio, leaves separated
Organic arugula
200ml of extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
Salt
Organic edible flowers to garnish

Method

  • Place the saltfish in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Soak for three days, changing the water daily until tender.
  • Cut the softened saltfish into small pieces and add to a large pan with the bay leaf and a garlic clove. Cover with the milk and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for two hours.
  • Meanwhile, place 25ml of sunflower oil in a small pan with the remaining garlic clove. Cook over low heat for a few minutes without colouring to allow the oil to infuse.
  • Strain through a sieve to remove the garlic, and set the oil aside to cool.
  • Once cooked, strain the cod mixture through a sieve, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard the garlic and bay leaf.
  • Place the cod and reserved liquid in a mixing bowl and mash together. Mix in the garlic-infused oil and enough of the remaining sunflower oil to make a soft, creamy mixture. Reserve the saltfish mixture until needed.
  • Blanch the ackee until tender. Rinse in cold water and put aside.
  • Preheat the oven broiler to medium-high heat.
  • Carefully open the zucchini flowers and fill them with the saltfish mixture, spooning it into the central cavity. Close the petals around the filling, then place them on a baking tray.
  • Brush the flowers liberally with melted butter and sprinkle over the grated Grana Padano.
  • Cook under the broiler until the cheese has melted and is lightly golden in colour.
  • Rinse the radicchio and arugula under cold water. Gently pat dry with paper towels.
  • Toss, season with a little salt, and dress with olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Sautée the ackee with butter, herbs, and onion.
  • Divide the salads between serving plates and add a grilled zucchini flower. Garnish with a mixture of edible flowers and the sautéed ackee.
  • Serve immediately.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.

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