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How Salt Fish Became Part of the Jamaican Diet

When most people plan a vacation, they choose a destination based on their interests or activities in which they plan to engage - top of the list being sightseeing, tours, attractions, and sports. Yet, many tourists return home with a surprise benefit of their trip, that is the exotic foods which they were able to sample.

salt fish used in jamaican diet
Two pieces of fried cassava (top) with two pieces of fried salt fish (bottom)

Jamaica is no exception. People taking a Jamaica vacation are usually planning on basking in the sunshine on the white sand beaches, enjoying the clean clear Caribbean Sea, visiting the beauty spots in the hilly interior, rafting on rivers and climbing waterfalls, all to the beat of the world-famous reggae music. But they will come face to face with Jamaican cuisine which, like the music, is an attraction all on its own.

Jamaican Cuisine
There are many popular Jamaican specialties like jerk chicken and pork, curried goat, yam, ackee, brown-stew fish, rice and peas, and many more. But there is one item that plays a major role in much of Jamaica’s cuisine and that is salt fish. Salt fish is often served with staples like yam, both roasted on an open fire, as the salty taste of the fish is a perfect complement to the dull taste of the starch. Salt fish is a vital ingredient in many other Jamaica dishes, like soups, stew peas, and the national dish, ackee and salt fish.

What is Salt Fish?
Salt fish is dried and salted fish, usually cod from the North Atlantic. In recent years, as cod fish has become scarce and more expensive, other fishes, like pollock, have been substituted.

How did Salt Fish Become a Staple Food?
Salt fish was once widely regarded as poor people’s food and indeed, in some circles, this stigma still holds true today. During the days of slavery, sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean imported salt fish to feed their slaves as it was a very cheap source of protein. For many it was their only source of protein.

And when slavery was abolished, salt fish still remained the cheapest available protein for ex-slaves with no money. The indentured labourers, who were imported from India and China to replace the slaves, also embraced salt fish into their diets. For Indians, the blandness of rice and dahl is greatly improved by a piece of fried salt fish on the side. For all these poor people, salt fish was the only protein they could afford. And of course, it did not need refrigeration, in those days a high-priced luxury.

Salt Fish Today
As the masses of people in Jamaica were of low income, for a long time, salt fish continued to be an important part of their diets. Generation after generation grew up with salt fish and so what was a bare necessity became a much craved-for desire for Jamaicans. Its role as a staple became so strong, that when cod fish prices escalated in the twentieth century, successive Jamaican governments were forced to subsidize the price to keep it within reach of the poor masses or risk the wrath of the electorate on polling dates.

In more recent times, as economic conditions have deteriorated and Jamaica faces massive budget deficits, subsidies have been removed, and the price of salt fish has sky-rocketed. Yet, salt fish remains as popular as ever, its unique taste being so in tune with the Jamaican palette.

Visitors to Jamaica may not realize it, but many of the dishes that they grow to love during their stay in Jamaica rentals will have been made or served with salt fish, at one time the food of the slaves and the poor.

Jamaica Villas Happenings