It's autumn in Madison, and despite what the weather might tell you on any given day, school is most certainly back in session. I recently participated in a friendly academic discussion about the number of Jamaican restaurants in our fair city. We've got three, while I count two in all of Milwaukee. The per capita number is high for "little" Madison. Why?
I'm sure there are very legitimate and mundane reasons, having to do with demographic patterns, educational opportunities, and openness to foreign culture. A purely for-laffs answer we came up with was the stereotypical white, lefty hippie fascination with Jamaica, Bob Marley, and pot that's endemic to college towns.
Whatever the reason, Jamaican restaurants in Madison cover all the bases. Jolly Bob's is kinda classy and the prices on their menu show it. Take one look at the cluttered exterior of Jamerica, and it's clear they're targeting the rasta demographic. But one eatery fills the niche of basic Jamaican, marked with minimal affectation and serving the one dish for which I was truly searching. That joint is David's Jamaican Cuisine, and the dish is ackee and codfish.
Ackee and codfish (also known as ackee and saltfish) is the officially-recognized national dish of Jamaica. I asked the ladies at David's why this is, and they told me that the dish came to prominence around the time that Jamaica reached full independence in 1962. I suspect it might have something to do with a sense of solidarity with the island's history; it was West African slaves who brought the ackee tree to Jamaica.
Salted cod is pretty much devoid of nuance; it's cod, preserved with salt. The ackee fruit is a little more interesting. It's a relative of the lychee and the horse chestnut, and is toxic if eaten too early in the ripening, or too close to the outer surface of the fruit. The edible portions are usually allowed to sun-dry in traditional preparations, while the quick method is to boil the flesh and discard the water entirely.
I placed my order, and decided to have a Ting with my meal. Coming from the Fox River Valley, I can tell you that this iconic Caribbean grapefruit soda is not the Ting of my youth. It's good, though, and not Fresca-sweet -- a great palate cleanser.
A plate of ackee and codfish merits a visual double-take, as it is almost indistinguishable from scrambled eggs. David's follows the standard recipe: boiled ackee, sauteed onions and tomatoes, and salted cod. Black pepper and salty fishiness are the dominant flavor notes, and it's no surprise that this dish is a breakfast staple in Jamaica (this makes the grapefruit soda all the more well-suited for this dish). It's nutritious but not heavy, even with a little oiliness.
The ackee itself is nearly an afterthought in terms of taste; there's almost none. Think of a very well-cooked head of cauliflower, but with a less pungent flavor. The flesh of the fruit crumbles softly on the tongue, and carries mostly the flavor of its surrounding ingredients.
The best part about it, though, was learning that David's uses fresh ackee. It's an expensive fruit to import, and bringing in the canned varieties only helps with shelf-life, not cost. But David's utilizes friends and family to bring ackee back from Jamaica on any and all trips there. For this reason, however, diners intent on experiencing ackee should call in advance.
I must give a little nod to those aforementioned ladies. Others have complained, but the reputation doesn't do justice to the service. With a new second location at 1616 Beld Street on the south side, the restaurant has to be making some people happy. Give 'em a chance to make you feel like family; I certainly felt that way.
It's a bit of a rarity, and somewhat hard to pin down, but David's ackee and codfish should be considered a city culinary treasure for its uncommon and authentic nature. Alongside a mound of black beans and rice and a hot cabbage and broccoli slaw, it was a full meal indeed for the money. I am happy to say that, for the first time in the history of Fringe Foods, I joined the Clean Plate Club.