Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.

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