Pantry: Caribbean Essentials
Also known as Jamaica pepper and sometimes (confusingly) pimento, these spice berries taste like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves. In the French-speaking Caribbean, allspice is used frequently to season seafood dishes and creole sausage. Allspice leaves are used similarly to bay leaves. Even the wood of the allspice plant is used - authentic Jamaican "jerked" foods are grilled over a fire of allspice branches.
This is the name of a traditional Caribbean soup as well as the greens that go into it. They are also often prepared in the style of collard or turnip greens. Levi Roots of Caribbean Food Made Easy uses callaloo in his Beef Pepperpot Stew. These leafy greens are sold fresh in some Caribbean markets, but canned leaves are easier to find. Jamaica's Grace brand is one of the most widely distributed. If you can't find callaloo, substitute spinach leaves.
Coconut (Oil, Water, Milk, Grated)
The coconut palm was considered the "staff of life" for centuries in the Caribbean. Coconut oil is the cooking oil of choice - it has a high smoke point and good flavor. The liquid in a coconut is coconut water; the liquid mixed with grated coconut meat is coconut milk. In one form or another, coconut is used in all kinds of Caribbean savory dishes, desserts and drinks.
Sugar cane is a major crop in the Caribbean; molasses is made from the juice squeezed from these plants during the refining process. The juice is boiled down to a syrupy mixture that ranges from amber brown (light molasses) to black (dark molasses). It has a slightly spicy flavor and is used in all kinds of Caribbean sweets. It is easily found in most grocery stores near the sugar products.
Pigeon Peas (And Other Beans)
These are the "peas" predominantly used in rice and peas, a staple Caribbean side dish. They are also used in soups and stews. Pigeon peas are African in origin and can usually be found dried or canned in grocery stores. Kidney beans, black beans, red beans and pink beans are also frequently used in Caribbean food.
The Caribbean region boasts dozens of varieties of hot pepper sauces. Jamaica's Pickapeppa sauce is one of the most well-known; it is a rich brown sauce that tastes like a peppery Worcestershire. All pepper sauces are at least moderately spicy but each has its own distinct flavor. It is used as a condiment, like hot sauce, to enhance and add heat to a wide variety of dishes. The bottled sauces are now becoming more available outside of the islands.
This cousin of the banana is never eaten raw - it is much starchier and less sweet. The ripeness of the plantain determines its cooking use in Caribbean cuisine. Green, under-ripe plantains are used for fried plantain chips and stews because of their high starch content. Roger Mooking of Everyday Exotic uses unripe plantains in his Trinidadian-Style Chicken dish. Yellow plantains are softer and less starchy, so they can be mashed and eaten as a side dish. Black-skinned, ripe plantains are used in Caribbean desserts.
A distilled spirit made from sugar cane or molasses, Caribbean rum is most often associated with pina coladas and rum punches. It is also used in cooking, especially desserts. Many of the islands make their own distinctive rums; some are light and others darker and longer-aged.
Scotch Bonnet Chiles
These lantern-shaped hot chiles turn up in virtually all courses of Caribbean cuisine except dessert. You can find Scotch Bonnets in Caribbean markets, but Mexican habanero peppers are a close substitute. These spicy chiles are always used fresh in Caribbean cuisine. Look for bright-colored chiles with no blemishes. If you prefer your food slightly less spicy, remove the seeds from the chile before cooking with it.
In the Caribbean, this yellow-colored spice is often labeled and sold as saffron, which is much more expensive. It adds color and flavor to many West Indian curries. Most spice shops and markets sell powdered turmeric; just make sure to buy small quantities and keep in a tightly sealed container, as the spice loses its flavor quickly.
Where to Find:
Check the international aisle of your local grocery store for these ingredients.
You can also shop online for more hard-to-find foods:
For the best selection and a cultural experience, search out a Caribbean or African market in your area.
For recipes using these ingredients, check out Caribbean Food Made Easy and Everyday Exotic.