With winter right around the corner, many of us are already wondering how we’ll get through the cold, snowy days without a vacation in the Caribbean.
If you can’t make the trip, however, you can bring the islands to your kitchen by celebrating the spices and spice blends native to the region.
Because the Caribbean islands played such a vital role in the spice trade, its food is a global fusion of sorts, with hints of Spanish, British, French, Dutch, African, Indonesian and Chinese influence.
Because of the myriad influences, there are also a wide range of spices that are commonly used in Caribbean cooking. After all, who wouldn’t take advantage of the melting pot of flavor enhancers that once passed through on trade ships?
While many believe allspice is a blend, it is actually a berry that brings with it hints of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Jamaica is the largest producer of the berries, which are known there as pimento because it was originally mistaken for black pepper by the Spanish, who call both black pepper and chilies pimientos. Allspice was often used to cure meat, and adding a touch of it to meat dishes helps bring a bolder, more robust flavor. It is a common spice in traditional Jamaican jerk dishes.
Annato seed, also known as achiote, is a popular addition to Caribbean dishes, primarily because it brings not only a sweet-savory flavor to foods, but also because it adds an orange or yellow color to dishes, making them more visually appealing.
Because of its color, annatto seed is sometimes used in place of saffron to give rice and potato dishes the bright yellow hue that is attributed to saffron. It is also used to color British Gloucester cheese, a technique that has been popular since the 16th century, when creamy orange cheeses were considered superior, and cheesemakers wanted to enhance the color of their cheese.
This popular hot pepper is a staple in Caribbean cooking, and is named for its resemblance to the Scottish tam o’ shanter cap. Scotch bonnets are not for the faint of heart, however. They have a rating of 100,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville scale, compared to jalapenos, which usually have a heat rating of 2,500 to 8,000.
There is a sweet variety of Scotch bonnet pepper called Cachucha, which also grows on some Caribbean islands, but it is the steamy Scotch bonnet that gets the most attention.
The fruit of an orchid, the vanilla bean is available in a variety of versions, and is used in both cooking and perfumes thanks to its exotic, floral notes. Second only to saffron when it comes to price, vanilla beans are expensive because the orchid that produces them must be hand-fertilized, a labor-intensive process.
Still, vanilla beans are worth the price, since the flavor is superior to vanilla extract, especially when paired with tropical fruits native to the Caribbean, such as guava and passion fruit.
There is both heat and brightness in ginger root, which like many other common Caribbean spices is suitable in both sweet and savory dishes.
Ginger is popular in Asian dishes, but can also be used to enhance seafood or sweet treats such as gingerbread, which is magnificently superior when baked with fresh ginger in place of dried.
- 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground mace
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup molasses
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 egg
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 6x3-inch loaf pans.
In a medium bowl, mix flour, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda and salt.
In a larger bowl, combine molasses, milk, sugar, butter, ginger and egg, beating with a hand or stand mixer until well blended. Add flour mixture and beat at low speed, scraping bowl as needed, until well mixed. Do not overmix, as gingerbread will become tough.
Pour batter into prepared pans and bake approximately 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing gingerbread from pans. Cool completely and sprinkle with powdered sugar before slicing.
The outer shell of the nutmeg seed, mace is brightly colored and wraps around the nutmeg seed like webbing. It is more delicate in flavor than the nutmeg inside, and is surrounded by a plum-sized fruit. In addition to a warm, spicy note, mace brings with it a bright color that enhances the visual aspects of food.
Nutmeg is suitable in both sweet and savory dishes, which makes it a popular spice in the Caribbean, which offers many foods that brilliantly balance the two flavor profiles. It is also used to flavor drinks, typically as a dusting of freshly-ground nutmeg on the top.
Nutmeg seeds are available in the spice section of most natural food markets.
While turmeric is often sold as saffron in the Caribbean, the two are very different beyond the bright yellow color. Turmeric has a delicate flavor and is a main ingredient in many curry dishes. It is packed with antioxidants, making it one of the healthiest spices available. Because turmeric loses its flavor quickly, use it often and only purchase it in small quantities at a time.
Cinnamon is so popular in the Caribbean that is sometimes referred to simply as spice. While it is a standard in sweet preparations, cinnamon – like star anise – brings out such a depth of flavor in beef dishes that they become restaurant quality, especially when the spice is used with a delicate hand.
Caribbean cinnamon is true cinnamon rather than Cassia, which is often sold as cinnamon although the flavors are slightly different.
It is most often used to flavor hot chocolate and coffee as well as oatmeal and rice pudding.
A Jamaican standard, jerk seasoning balances the punch of Scotch bonnet pepper with a bit of sweetness and other spices to round out the flavor. It is perfectly suited on grilled chicken and can be used as a dry rub or mixed with oil.
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried Scotch bonnet pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine the ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.