Spices and herbs give food more flavor, but they can also have cultural importance. In the case of Caribbean, there are several native spices and herbs that grow in abundance, and have made their way into food and drinks that are part of the unique culture of the area.
While not all of these plants are native to the region, their use showcases the cultural blending of the native, Dutch, English, Spanish, and African people who traveled to the Caribbean throughout history. If you're visiting an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, for example, you might encounter these bold flavors.
Allspice is also known as pimenta and is actually a small berry. It’s dried and ground to create allspice, which is a staple in many classic Caribbean dishes. In particular this Caribbean spice is prominent in Jamaican jerk, the sweet and tangy, and really spicy (due to the Scotch Bonnet pepers it contains) marinade, sauce, and dry rub seasoning that’s prevalent throughout the region. One of the essential ingredients in jerk is allspice, along with another spice widely used in the Caribbean, ginger.
Ginger is used in various cuisines throughout the world. Many Asian dishes, for example, feature ginger, and even outside of food, ginger is often used in herbal teas, in aromatic candles or oils, and as a nausea remedy - think of ginger ale or ginger tea. Although ginger doesn’t grow in the wild, and was not originally native to the Caribbean, the warm, tropical climate of the area is perfect for ginger cultivation. Besides jerk, ginger is used in ginger beer, in cookies and cakes, and in savory dishes to add a zippy, spicy flavor.
Cinnamon is another spice that is not originally native to the Caribbean, but is an essential part of Caribbean cuisine and is cultivated and highly popular in the region. Cinnamon can enhance both sweet and savory dishes. When preparing plantains, a regional fruit similar to a banana, it can be added for a sweet fried plantain dish, and it can be added to chicken with paprika and ginger for a savory, warm chicken dish.
Nutmeg is cultivated in the Caribbean, and is actually a seed. The seed is dried and then ground to produce the spice. Nutmeg is used in the Caribbean in a variety of ways, from drinks to savory or sweet dishes. Nutmeg can also be used in scented candles, in tea, or even added to dark, bitter coffee to soften the flavor.
Cloves are often present with ham, or at Thanksgiving, but they have many uses. Medicinally, cloves have been used for centuries. The oil from cloves can be a painkiller for dental issues, for example. They are also a delicious addition, as a spice, to food in the Caribbean, such as jerk. Also, ham is very popular in the Caribbean, and cloves are often used as a spice for ham, like the roast pork and ham on a Cuban sandwich.
Garlic is common all over the world, but it is an essential ingredient in many Caribbean dishes. Garlic pairs especially well with shrimp and seafood. It's also an important component in jerk, and goes well with another prevalent spice, ginger. Garlic also has health benefits, like helping to prevent colds and reducing blood pressure.
Paprika is an interesting spice. It’s ground red pepper, but there are several varieties. Smoked paprika, for example, tends to be spicier and more savory, while sweeter paprika, like the variety generally found in the Caribbean, is lighter. Paprika is used in a variety of dishes, both as a flavor component and as a garnish. Paprika is also visually appealing, as its bright red color is hard to dull, even when cooked.
The food flavor profiles are quite varied across the region. Many of the most essential dishes of the region - jerk, chicken and rice, seafood, conch fritters, Cuban sandwiches - are so recognizable because of these spices and their continued use. Visiting the Caribbean is a great way to experience these spices first hand, but it’s also easy to use them in Caribbean recipes at home.
Ginger, for example, is a great spice to use at home. It’s easy to find, and lasts a long time when kept cool - just store the root in the refrigerator in a sealed container and it lasts much longer than you would think.
Garlic is easy to grow if you want it fresh, but is also useful when dried and ground. With some good allspice, you can even be on your way to making your own jerk seasoning. These spices and herbs are delicious, useful, and unique in many ways to Caribbean cooking.