Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Pricey salt fish leaves the national dish - High costs force Jamaicans to look for new ackee partner

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Nadine Wilson-Harris, Staff Reporter

With a pound of salt fish being sold on average for $500, many Jamaicans have been forced to adjust the national dish by substituting the salted cod with other ingredients such as salt mackerel, red herring, chicken back, or sausage.

Last week, several shopkeepers in the Corporate Area told The Sunday Gleaner that they had either stopped selling the imported fish or have decreased their stock over the last few months as customers have been bemoaning its cost.

"It is too expensive, so the people them not buying it. You know how long I stop selling it!" said Merlene, who operates a grocery shop in Trench Town.

"Most time people cook the ackee with chicken back or salt mackerel because you know that this is a ghetto community, so people don't really have the money to buy salt fish," added her neighbour Kereen, who also operates a shop.

Out of reach

Shopkeeper Guyse Barrette noted that in previous years, residents would visit her shop off Charles Street in downtown, Kingston, to buy a quarter pound of salt fish, however, at $150, it is out of the reach of many low-income earners and is more expensive than one pound of chicken back.

"When you buy a case, it don't really sell, so it take a long time to finish," she said.

"One time, people used to come and buy a half pound, but now, sometimes people use the chicken back, although there is nothing like the salt fish with the ackee," said Barrette.

Ackee and salt fish was ranked at number two by National Geographic on its top 10 list of the world's best national dishes in 2013. It was only bested by the United States' hamburger. Still, some locals question the fact that the main ingredient for the dish has to be imported primarily from Canada and Norway.

"People mostly buy red herring and chicken back to cook with ackee, but then those are mostly imported, too. Everything imported now. You have anything come from Jamaica?" asked Miss Hazel, as she looked through the little opening of her shop near the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Lyndhurst Road.

Just across the street from her, Dorette McLeish struggled to remember the last time she was able to convince a customer to buy one pound of salt fish.

"I buy a box and it last only two weeks because it's now ackee season, but first time, the box would have been finished within a week," said McLeish.

Health concerns

But apart from the high cost of salt fish, some Jamaicans have cut back on their consumption of the delectable dish for health reasons.

"I prefer to eat ackee alone. Just take it out of the pot and eat it like that and you can eat it with sausage, too. But I don't really eat ackee much again because they say it is not good for your cholesterol," said one senior citizen who identified herself as Doreen.

A similar sentiment was echoed by taxi driver Christopher, who was among a group of men who lamented the high cost of living as they sat in front of a bar along Omara Road in Kingston.

"I kind of cool off the ackee, still, because I am getting up in age and it's too much fat, plus I have to think about prostate cancer and those things. But when I eat it, I cook it with chicken back," he said.

Nutritionist Patricia Fletcher believes that ackee and salt fish does pose health risks, however, she disagrees that prostate cancer and high cholesterol are among them.

"It is being suggested that there are connections with prostate issues, and I think it is more so how it is eaten and what it is being eaten with, because I know persons who dunk the fried dumplings in the oil as the gravy.

"Normally, you eat the ackee and salt fish with the dumpling, with the breadfruit, with the plantain, and so most of the things are fried, so it is more the oil that is causing the cholesterol problem," she said.

She advocates moderate consumption of the dish for those who are hypertensive.

"I have seen too many persons use the salt fish and their pressure raise afterwards, especially if they are on medication for hypertension," said Fletcher.

She, too, has noticed that people have been using other ingredients besides salt fish with their ackee.

"Some even use it with beans, so it's not the standard ackee with meat. But of course, you have the standard ackee and ham, and ackee and some kind of a fish dish, and ackee and chicken even, or ackee and bacon, and ackee and sausage. Those options people tell me that they use," she said.