Certain cuisines have that one ingredient that really seems to define them. For Italian food, it’s gotta be the tomato, while for Mexican food, corn makes a pretty strong case. In Jamaican cuisine, it’s all about the Scotch bonnet, also known as the “Bonney pepper,” or “Caribbean red pepper.” This fiery pepper forms the base of the Jamaican seasoning: jerk. But how is the Scotch bonnet cultivated, and more importantly, what’s with that name? Let’s take a look below.
What Is A “Scotch Bonnet”
Confession time, when I first heard the phrase “Scotch bonnet,” I thought it was grown in Scotland (you know, the pepper capital of the world *facepalm*). In my defense, this was before I became a chef and long before I connected with my Jamaican roots. In truth, the pepper got its name because it supposedly resembles a Scottish “tam o’ shanter” hat: the flat, usually plaid, beret-style hats often worn by bagpipers. I guess I wasn’t so far off with my Scottish connection. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
OK, so if it didn’t come from Scotland, where did the Scotch bonnet originate (Hint: not Jamaica either)? It was actually discovered in South America’s lush Amazon Basin. Scholars believe that the pepper made its voyage to Jamaica via the Taino people – early settlers of the island. The Taino brought plants – including Scotch bonnets and cassava – as well as livestock via canoes from the mainland. Sadly, the Taino were all but wiped out after Columbus and his crew “explored” the island in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but their influence can still be felt in Jamaican culture and cooking.
The Scotch bonnet packs a punch, weighing in at over 100,000 Scoville units–a similar heat level to the habanero pepper. To me, this is the right amount of heat: perfectly tingly, but not so hot you have to sign a waiver (you won’t catch me at one of those crazy ghost pepper challenges). I also love that a subtle sweetness accompanies the heat of the Scotch bonnet. This is a big part of the reason that jerk seasoning tastes so good.
But the Scotch bonnet isn’t only found in jerk seasoning: it’s used to spice up a variety of Jamaican dishes. While traveling the island (when I wasn’t busy sunning myself on Jamaica’s beautiful beaches), I saw the Scotch bonnet used in oxtail stew, as well as Jamaican curries. But it doesn’t have to be limited to Jamaican cuisine: the pepper’s spicy/sweet flavor profile makes it a great addition to just about any tropical marinade or spice rub. It’s also made appearances in a few quirky cocktails, most notably the “Scotch marmalade,” a Scotch (whisky), marmalade, and lemon juice cocktail that’s garnished with a Scotch bonnet slice for a spicy Scotch-on-Scotch libation.
What Are Your Favorite Scotch Bonnet Recipes?
I am sure there are some delicious Scotch bonnet recipes I am leaving out. I would love to hear your favorites in the comments below–whether they be seasonings, marinades, or even cocktails. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to my beachside tanning sesh (sorry, had to rub it in!).
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