Updated: May 1, 2019
Many a time when speaking to people about Caribbean cuisine, a common reaction I hear is ‘I love Caribbean food…but it’s just too spicy!” Okay – so granted, ingredients such as the small and yet venomously named ‘scorpion chilli’ from Trinidad as well as the legendary punch that is the Scotch Bonnet, lend weight to that sentiment. But this got me to thinking…does ‘spice’ need to be ‘spicy?’
Usually when people refer to spice they actually mean heat, basically the scoville scale of the chillies often prevalent in Caribbean food. However, there are a lot of spices that pack no heat what-so-ever and these are used extensively in Caribbean cuisine also.
This thought of spices as being vicious uncontrollable fire starters has left many people scared of learning about them and therefore using them. There are many stereotypes of fire breathing cooking, but a lot of that is out of mis-education or perhaps preconceptions of what spices are and how delicate they can be, when handled correctly. That point of being handled correctly is very important. Chilli should provide a kick but it shouldn't burn your mouth or your throat. If it does then this is down to the cook who has not cooked the chilli properly! Really, the use of any spice is to complement the ingredients they are seasoning, but understandably, this can be a hard place to reach for some who may not know either the main types of spice or perhaps their purpose.
For example, the well-known spices of Vanilla and Juniper, they are known as belonging to the group of ingredients referred to as ‘spices’ but one would never label them as being ‘spicy’. That subtle difference has a big impact when it comes to challenging preconceptions, which is the first step on a learning journey about what spices are and what they could do to lift dishes, not just Caribbean dishes but your food in general.
Take the humble side of rice. Let’s face it, rice can be pretty boring... (Well long grain rice can be...I can happily have a whole bowl of basmati rice!)…but add a gentle, fragrant spice called ‘Annatto’ and the rice takes on a slightly reddish tinge but more importantly a nutty, almost earthy taste. Such a subtle difference makes something that is the carb to fill you up alongside the main elements to become the element on the dish that makes you want to come back for more, the definition of ‘moreish’.
So with this thought in mind, I have listed my top five spices below and given a rough idea as to how they can be used in any kitchen:
Allspice (also known as Pimento) is a the dried unripened seeds of the Pimenta Dioica tree, commonly found on the Island of Jamaica. The seeds are dried in the tropical sun before being packaged whole or ground to make a powder. Named Allspice for it's strange ability to conjure up all the flavours of popular spices - cinnamon, bay, mace, black pepper nutmeg and clove, this spice is truly unique! The beautiful allspice is commonly used in seasonings such as Jerk. The leaves of the Allspice tree can be used in a similar way to bay leaves, imparting subtle flavour into stews and broths. Even the bark and wood are used in the traditional cooking methods of the Caribbean especially when barbecuing (see below for more on that).
Is there anything more comforting than the warming and homely smell of cinnamon?! Cinnamon is used in a variety of different cuisines and is the inner bark of the evergreen laurel tree. The bark is harvested and as it dries in the sun it forms tight bundles which can be used in alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, savoury dishes to season meats and many different desserts. These days it is even sprinkled on top of coffees to add a slightly aromatic sweetness to the foam of a mocha or latte. I often use a little cinnamon in my son's hot chocolate on a Saturday morning to celebrate the weekend!
I couldn't not mention nutmeg! With Grenada being the 2nd largest worldwide exporter of this spice and belonging to the tree Myristica Fragrans (where we got our name for our supper club from!) this spice is truly unique! It is often used in desserts as it has a slightly sweet taste however it is also used in many British classics such as sausage rolls, pork pies and potted shrimp!
Cloves are the flowering bud of the clove tree and like many spices, clove has its origins in Indonesia but is now found throughout the world in tropical climates well suited to its growth. Working well alongside Cinnamon and Allspice as well as other spices, Cloves are widely used in Caribbean cooking. Personally I love poaching fruits with this beautiful spice, subtle but definitely adding something to the final flavour, it's one to try if you haven't already!
I probably love this spice because I love a good curry! Curried goat, curried chicken, fish curry, any good curry and I'm happy! Cumin is native to the middle east but like many other spices has now spread throughout the globe. It is a key ingredient in many curry bases, despite not being 'hot' itself. The seed pods are extracted from the fruit of the tree and then dried. Once that process is complete they are then used whole or ground up before being used. Toasting this spice lightly beforehand will bring out its rich, warm and earthy flavour.
So as a cook’s skills grow, so too will their knowledge of spice and all that can be achieved with them once you understand their place in your culinary repertoire. Sure, this will mean some failures along the way, but that’s all part of the excitement. Because when you get it just right, well that is when true masterpieces are made…
So the next time you walk down the spice aisle at your local supermarket or pass by the spice stall at your local food market, try something new and remember that not all spices are spicy. A quick google search will give you some basic ideas for combinations that work well and you may just find yourself learning a great deal about the different spices that make up the armoury of any decent Chef, heck! You may even enjoy them!
For a traditional Jerk dish, many Jamaicans would tell you that the wood that is used to smoke the meat should be from the All Spice tree. So next time you are in Jamaica, make sure you are sampling the real thing...the difference is unreal!