Jamaican food has a complex history that involves colonization, slavery and immigration from the Far East. The cuisine itself is a melting pot of African, native West Indian and Asian cooking styles. As a result, the most popular Jamaican spices come from all over the world and include:
Scotch bonnet peppers
While Jamaican food is not as spicy as food from places like India or Indonesia, it is certainly among the spiciest in the New World. The spice level comes primarily from the scotch bonnet pepper, which is Jamaica’s favorite source of heat. Scotch bonnets are not as hot as ghost peppers but they are far hotter than jalapeños.
Along with the heat, they offer a strong fruity flavor that you won’t get from most other chilies. Scotch bonnets show up in everything from Jamaican curry goat to the world-famous jerk pork. The scotch bonnet is an essential ingredient in the island’s extensive array of soups.
Allspice berries grow on a few other Caribbean islands but most of it — and the best of it — comes from Jamaica. Along with scotch bonnet peppers, allspice is the foundation spice in all jerk dishes and gets tossed into other Jamaican favorites as well, including rice and peas and fish dishes like escovitch fish.
The composition of jerk seasoning blends can differ a lot depending on the cook’s preference but scotch bonnet and allspice are the main flavors in all blends including the commercial ones. Thyme, scallions, and ginger also play important roles in the savory and highly aromatic mix of seasonings. Garlic and sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg can also show up in some blends.
Jerk seasoning can be in the form of a dry powdered mix but is most often sold in the form of a wet paste. Both dry and wet versions are meant to be rubbed into the meat well ahead of cooking. The jerk style of cooking requires a long marination time. You should allow your meat to marinate for at least 24 hours.
Easily the most popular culinary herb in Jamaica, thyme’s savory and minty notes complement a variety of Jamaican meat dishes including jerk dishes. Thyme is also used liberally in most soups and in rice and peas.
One of the Jamaican spices that originated in Asia, ginger has become an important part of Jamaica’s food culture over the centuries. It not only shows up in the dishes from Jamaica’s Chinese diaspora, it is one of the key spices used to make jerk dishes.
Ginger brings an intense aromatic sweetness and mild spicy heat that helps to offset the savory notes from chiles and garlic. Ginger also gets used in various beverages such as the seasonal drink made with hibiscus, which is called sorrel on the island. It is also the main ingredient in Jamaican ginger beer.
A relic of the island’s past as a part of the British Empire, curry powder is the second most popular spice blend in Jamaica after jerk seasoning. The Jamaican version is typically heavy on the turmeric and is used alongside other spices like ginger, garlic and scallions. It is essential for Jamaican dishes like curry goat, curry chicken and curry shrimp.