Those of you who have been following my journey for a while now probably know that I love bold seasonings. The kind of food that sets your mouth on fire and gets your taste buds buzzing is exactly the kind of food that I seek out. That’s why I love Jamaican food: it’s one of the most boldly seasoned foods out there. To fully understand Jamaican cuisine, one has to understand Jamaican spices and seasonings.
By far the most famous of all the Jamaican seasonings is jerk seasoning. You may have had jerk chicken, one of the island’s most popular dishes. Jerk seasoning can be used to crank up the heat in many different dishes though; I use it frequently in my cooking. Jerk seasoning is commonly applied as a dry rub, though it can also be used as a wet marinade. The two main ingredients in jerk seasoning are scotch bonnet peppers and allspice.
Despite the name, scotch bonnets definitely do not come from Scotland (they are so named because they resemble the “tam o’ shanter” hat commonly worn in Scotland). These peppers are native to west Africa and the Caribbean, hence their popularity in Jamaican cooking. They pack a serious punch, weighing in at up to 350.000 Scoville units (the unit most commonly used to measure a pepper’s heat). The jalapeno, by comparison, comes in at a measly 8,000 Scoville units.
Allspice, contrary to its name, is not a mixture of all the spices; it’s a dried, unripe berry taken from the pimento dioica tree. Its flavor is often compared to cinnamon and nutmeg. Other ingredients often used in jerk seasoning include cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as garlic, thyme, and brown sugar. This is one of the reasons I love this seasoning so much: it is not just spicy—it’s sweet as well. You can find this delicious seasoning at just about any grocery store these days, though it’s certainly not difficult to make at home.
The other main seasoning that you will find in most Jamaican restaurants and kitchens is curry. This global seasoning came to the island from Great Britain, by way of India. Curried goat, seafood, and chicken are all popular meals in Jamaica. Jamaican curry tends to be heavier on the turmeric than its Indian counterpart, which is what gives it its distinctive yellow color. Aside from turmeric, common ingredients in Jamaican curry include ginger, cumin, cloves, and – like jerk seasoning – scotch bonnet and allspice.
Paprika – the dried, ground red peppers that were brought to the Americas from Spain – is a popular garnish in Jamaican cooking. Its bright red color helps make stews, soups, and meats more eye-catching and flavorful.
Ginger – commonly used in Jamaican curries – is also a common ingredient in a popular beverage: beer. It is believed that ginger beer was first brewed in Yorkshire, England, back in the 1700s. It has since become one of the adult beverages of choice (along with rum) in Jamaica. Royal Jamaican is a popular alcoholic ginger beer that can be found at many stores in the States. Be warned: this acquired taste has some serious bite to it!
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