How to cook the perfect Jamaican rundown – recipe

<span>Felicity Cloake’s perfect Jamaican mackerel rundown. </span><span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Felicity Cloake’s perfect Jamaican mackerel rundown. Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Such is the mystery surrounding this curiously named breakfast favourite that Caribbean chef Riaz Phillips claims that, were he visited by a culinary genie offering to grant three foodie wishes, he’d use one to “ask the lineage and origin of Caribbean rundown”. Citing a dictionary of Jamaican English that describes it as “a kind of sauce made by boiling coconut down til it becomes like custard”, Phillips’ book West Winds suggests an intriguing link with the similarly rich and coconut-based Indonesian rendang, while food writer Melissa Thompson notes parallels with the pepper pots made by Jamaica’s indigenous population.

Whatever the truth, rundown, of Jamaican origins but popular on other islands and in parts of Latin America, too, is beloved – “a rich and textured meal that is most often enjoyed on Sundays, when there is ample time to prepare it, as well as time to leisurely imbibe and digest,” as chefs Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau explain, while for Levi Roots it’s simply a classic. And if all that feels like too much of an effort first thing in the morning, be reassured by Phillips that, when it comes to rundown, “many people (including myself) have decided that being limited to the morning just isn’t long enough”.

The fish

Though I’ve chosen to concentrate on perhaps the most common iteration, with mackerel, rundown can be made with all sorts of seafood (Virginia Burke has a lobster-and-shrimp spin in her Walkerswood Caribbean Kitchen cookbook) and meat (Shivi Ramoutar supplies a chicken-based take in Caribbean Modern). Meanwhile, in his book Caribbean Food Made Easy, Roots suggests trying “a vegetarian version cooked with aubergine, yam, sweet potato and squash”), which seems to mean you have carte blanche to use the sauce below as you wish.

So-called pickled, or salt, mackerel seems the most traditional choice, however: Thompson notes in her book Motherland that, “historically, it played a great part of the diet of everyone on the island, both enslaved and free”. You should be able to find it in specialist Caribbean food shops (though I ended up buying it online), or substitute it with the salt cod that Phillips notes as an alternative – note that both will require desalination before use. Whatever you buy may well come with specific instructions, but I find that the most effective method comes from the Rousseaus, who soak the fish in hot water for three hours, changing the water several times, then simmer it in the sauce for 20 minutes before serving. That said, as they note, “the mackerel should still be noticeably salty, but not painfully so, as it is the only source of salt in the dish”.

This contrast between the salty fish and the sweet, warmly spiced sauce seems to me to be part of the magic of rundown, which is why, good as Roots’ recipe using fresh mackerel is, it doesn’t hit quite the same spot. Given the difficulties of finding pickled mackerel, however, if you can’t locate it, I’d strongly recommend going for Thompson’s smoked variety, which, she says, “adds a lovely dimension to the dish [and] because … you don’t need to cook it down for a long time … it’s a relatively quick meal to make”. Phillips’ saltfish (cod) isn’t a bad choice, either, but for me it lacks the requisite oiliness that makes the original so moreish.

The coconut

As Phillips observes, rundown sauce has much in common with Indonesian rendang, in that coconut milk is boiled until it separates and clings to the fish (or whatever you’re using) in oily curds. That’s much more delicious than it sounds, I promise, though you will need to check the brand you’re using doesn’t include emulsifiers, because they seem to interfere with the process; if you open the tin (without shaking) and discover it’s uniformly smooth and thick, rather than separated into coconut cream on top and milk below, it’s probably not ideal for this purpose, though it’ll still taste good.

Phillips, the Rousseaus and Thompson all use coconut milk (homemade, ideally, though I’m afraid my dedication to this column does know some bounds), and Roots and chef Keshia Sakarah plump for coconut cream. With cream alone, once the dish has finished simmering, there’s insufficient delicious sauce for my taste – a more generous quantity of milk, as in the Rousseaus’ recipe, leaves more behind for eating. That said, given my own recent experiments with rendang, it seems to make sense to fry the aromatics in the cream before adding the milk. (If your coconut milk has no cream on top, use a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil instead, as the Rousseaus suggest, or, if you don’t have that handy, just substitute with a neutral oil.)

The aromatics and vegetables

Every rundown sauce seems to start with onions (the Rousseaus and Phillips also add spring onions later in the process, which bring a fresher, greener flavour that I find works really well with the richness of the coconut), and garlic is also fairly standard. Ginger lends a lovely warmth to Sakarah, Phillips and Thompson’s versions, as do the scotch bonnets that most also use – add them whole, though, so they can be fished out without blowing any socks off: a gentle, underlying heat seems to be the name of the game here, rather than overt fire.

This warmth is often enhanced by the classically Caribbean flavour of allspice, though Phillips uses a local all-purpose seasoning that, among other things, also features thyme, which I’d recommend including for its sharp, herbaceous qualities. Thompson adds bay and cumin, too, which give her dish a slightly earthier, more savoury character. Once you’ve made your choice, taste the sauce and see if you think it needs a little vinegar or lime juice at the end; some recipes include it, others don’t, so it seems to be largely a matter of personal preference.

Equally, though it doesn’t seem to be strictly canonical, it’s common to add vegetables: Roots goes for waxy potatoes, carrots and parsnips, Thompson for yellow yam or pumpkin, and almost everyone for tomatoes and peppers. Given the savoury, salty flavour of the fish, I’m pro the sweetness that peppers and pumpkin add, but you may wish to vary this, or indeed just serve vegetables on the side instead.

The sides

Rundown should be served with “hard food”, a term often shortened simply to “food”, such is the importance of this category of starches to the Jamaican diet for historical reasons that are well explained in Phillips’ excellent book. Boiled green bananas are probably the easiest example to replicate, but I’d highly recommend giving Sakarah’s wonderfully bouncy boiled cassava dumplings a go, or, for a special occasion, Thompson’s fried ones, which are like savoury doughnuts (and who doesn’t love a doughnut for breakfast?).

Perfect Jamaican rundown

Prep 15 min
Cook 40 min
Serves 4

400ml tin unhomogenised coconut milk (look for one with no emulsifiers)
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 red pepper, stalk, pith and seeds removed, flesh diced (optional)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
20g root ginger
1 scotch bonnet chilli
½ tsp ground allspice
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 plum tomatoes
, chopped
200g pumpkin or squash, peeled and cut into chunks (optional)
3-4 smoked mackerel fillets, skinned and flaked, or pickled mackerel, soaked in several changes of hot water for 3 hours
2 spring onions, cut into diagonal pieces
Vinegar or lime juice, to taste, to finish (optional)

To accompany
4 green bananas or cassava dumplings

Start by preparing the dumplings, if using – try Keshia Sakarah’s recipe. If using bananas, top and tail them, then make a skin-deep cut down their entire length.

Drop the bananas in a pot of boiling water, cook for 30 minutes, then drain and, once cool enough to handle, peel.

Put a frying pan on a medium-high heat. Open the tin of coconut milk and carefully scoop the cream on top into the pan.

Fry until the oil separates, then add the onion and pepper, and fry until softened.

Stir in the garlic, ginger, chilli, allspice and thyme, fry for a minute or so, then stir in the tomatoes and squash, if using, and fry for a couple of minutes more. Pour in the coconut milk, bring to a simmer, then cover and leave to bubble away for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened a little; if you prefer, by all means reduce it further.

Stir in the mackerel and spring onions, cook for another five minutes, then taste for seasoning, and add vinegar or lime juice, to taste, if desired. Serve with the bananas or dumplings.

  • Rundown: can anyone shed any more light on the history and etymology of this Jamaican favourite? How do you like to make yours, and what do you serve with it?

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