Cooking is as much about skill as it is about passion. Either of these on their own can produce a satisfactory dish; bring them together and you have a delicious meal.
My first attempt at making Rundown, or Rundung in our Jamaican dialect, was for a dinner party I gave. I approached the making of this mildly complicated dish armed only with an inflated sense of confidence. I’m sure I thought to myself, how difficult can it be to?
While I scored on the passion, I bombed on the skill. Fortunately, for me, my guests thought my Rundown was a hit.
Rundown is grated or shredded coconut that is boiled until it reduces to a thick, custard-looking consistency. At that stage, onions, pepper, tomatoes, garlic, thyme are added and allowed to cook before adding the fish, typically salted mackerel, cod or shad. Lobster or shrimp work perfectly as well.
Rundown – I haven’t been able to find out why it’s called that – also goes by an even more interesting name, Dip and Fall Back. According to the National Library of Jamaica’s website, Rundown was served traditionally in a bowl that was placed in the middle of the table. Each person at the table would dip something starchy, like boiled green bananas or dumpling, into the bowl then fall back to allow someone else to dip.
Communal eating, which might have been holdover from slavery, was likely brought back into play during the war when foods and other items were rationed and Jamaicans had to create other ways to feed their families.
Another explanation is that you dip and allow your head to fall back so that the sauce doesn’t drip. Whatever the reason, Rundown or Dip and Fall Back is a Jamaican classic. There’s even song, Dip and Fall Back, celebrating the dish. Listen to a mento version by The Spinners, a group that’s new to me, and a lively folk version by the Cari-Folk singers.
My mistake on my first try was that I didn’t let the coconut reduce enough before I added the seasonings. I didn’t have annatto seeds either, for that yellowish-red color but it didn’t matter because the meal was delicious. (Annatto is the food coloring that gives Chedder and other cheeses their characteristic reddish-yellow color.) Honestly, there really is no way to fail with anything cooked in coconut since it gives foods such a rich flavor.
I never tried Rundown until several years later. That time, I got it halfway right but I was careful not to say it was Rundown.
A few weeks ago, when I was cooking with my aunt, I asked her to help me make it. She didn’t have salted mackerel so we used saltfish instead. Above is how it looked. For the record, it was delicious.
- 2 whole coconuts, grated or 2 cans coconut milk
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 2 -3 sprigs of thyme
- 6 cups water
- 3 stalks scallion, chopped
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 lbs. pickled mackerel, saltfish or shad
- 3 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 hot pepper, Scotch bonnet, chopped and seeds removed
- 5-6 annatto seeds or a dash of turmeric (optional)
- Soak the mackerel or shad in water for at least 3 hours to remove excess salt. You can also bring it to boil 2 or three times, throwing off the water and letting it boil again. Remove as many bones as possible and set this aside.
- If you're using shrimp or lobster, clean and set aside.
- If you’re using grated coconut, add water and press the liquid through a sieve, cheesecloth or muslin bag. This is the coconut milk.
- Boil the coconut milk rapidly in a heavy frying pan until it is reduced to something resembling curdled custard oil.
- Stir in the annatto or turmeric then add onion, garlic, scallion, tomatoes, hot pepper and thyme. Lower the heat and simmer for ten minutes.
- Add the fish and stir.
- Cover and cook for 10 minutes on a medium heat.
- This dish is traditionally served with boiled green bananas and dumplings. Sometimes the green bananas are cooked with it.
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