Ingredients Used in Jamaican Food

  • 220px-Habanero_closeup_edit2
  • 361px-Scotch-bonnet
  • canevinegar

Jamaican food is complex and varied. A number of typical ingredients make up the pantheon of Jamaican cuisine.

You’ll see these ingredients over and over in Jamaican recipes here and in other sources of Jamaican culinary information.

Scotch bonnet peppers or habanero peppers

The Scotch bonnet (named for its tam-shaped top) is the traditional chile pepper used in Jamaica. Several cultivars can be found on the island. Where I live, I haven’t been able to find Scotch bonnets. I have found habanero peppers, which are closely related.

Habaneros register about 300,000 on the Scoville scale, which measures capsaicin quantities – heat. This rates them about 10 times hotter than the jalapeño. By comparison, green bell peppers measure zero. Habaneros are pointed at the bottom, while Scotch bonnets are more squat. Hailing from Cuba, they’re named for Havana – Habana.

My source for habanero pepper used to be an Asian grocery, specifically – I say for readers in south central Wisconsin – the Viet Hoa market on Monona Drive in Monona, the town bordering on the east side of Madison. They sell pre-wrapped packs of 1 to 2 dozen in their produce section. I would store them in the refrigerator, and they would go bad before I could use them all up, but the low price for the pack meant they were still a great buy. Then I began putting them in a jar of vinegar in the refrigeration. That pickled them for indefinite keeping, but also changed the flavor. Don hit on the brilliant notion of putting them whole and rinsed clean into a zip-top sandwich bag and storing them in the freezer. That works a treat! They last for months and months, forever for all practical purposes.

My source for habanero peppers today is a plant that I scored as a seedling on a lucky trip to a home improvement store in the summer of 2009. It yielded enough peppers in the first year to stock our freezer all summer, winter, spring and early summer. As I write this in July of 2010, it’s covered with new blossoms and peppers.

Many people don’t know that pepper plants are tender perennials in non-tropical climates. Pot your pepper plants at the end of the season and bring them indoors. They’ll scraggle through the winter and then become robust come spring. Take the pots outdoors during ordinary planting season. Your pepper trees bloom and yield earlier and more bountifully than their first year. In years to come, the main stem will become a stout, brown, tree-like trunk. Instead of starting or buying speciality pepper seedlings year after year, why not nurture a few special plants year after year?

The vibrant flavor of fresh peppers far outstrips the empty heat of most dried, powdered peppers. If you want the tropical character of these recipes to shine, go the extra mile and get yourself some fresh habaneros. You can freeze them, and then they’ll keep indefinitely.

Habaneros are hot. Handle with care. I always thought it was silly to use rubber gloves when cutting up peppers, until the morning I put my contact lenses in and felt like my corneas were on fire. It turned out I had contaminated my lenses the night before, when I had taken them out of my eyes to put them away. That was several hours after cutting up lots of peppers for a big batch of mango chutney.

If you remember that the capsaicin is produced in the placenta – that, I’m happy to report, is the botanical term for the inner white membrane in which the seeds are embedded – you can avoid a lot of the burn. I’ve gotten good at slitting habaneros open and cutting out the membrane and seeds with a couple of strokes. After that, it’s just a matter of remembering to scrub your cutting board and hands well when you’re done.

Limes and lime juice

Fresh Key limes at their peak of flavor are the best to use in Jamaican recipes. Unfortunately, though, Key limes pass that peak readily and then they become unpleasantly sour. The giveaway is skin that’s darkened and slightly shriveled.

Fresh Persian limes – that’s an ordinary, oval lime, as opposed to the small, spherical Key lime – at their peak of flavor are nearly as good, although Persian limes have a bitter overtone that’s absent in the sweet Key.

The Persians are more durable and they’re cheaper, too. Once a Key lime’s skin darkens, the flavor is off. So sacks of Key limes that are marked down in price aren’t as a good buy as they would seem. I discovered this from sad experience when I made a really cheap Key lime pie that was really bad to eat.

For lime juice in quantity, I use Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lime Juice. I didn’t think it was possible, but it captures the fresh, sweet flavor of the Key lime in a bottle. A good product, and without the work. A dozen little Key limes really sting your hands when you juice them one after another after another.

One Persian lime will yield almost exactly 3 tablespoons of juice. When I refer to a number of limes in the recipes here, I mean Persian limes. Double the number if you’re using Key limes.

Jamaica allspice

This is it, the native spice of the Caribbean, also known as “pimiento.â€? (The word comes from pimienta, Spanish for pepper.)

Allspice is not a blend of spices, as some assume, but a single spice. It’s named that because it tastes like a lot of different spices. Not because it is a lot of different spices.

Allspice berries look like oversized peppercorns, and they taste – magically enough – like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and clove.

Allspice, whole berry and ground, can be found cheaply at my local grocery, Woodman’s, on the hanging spice carousel in the produce department. An ounce of whole berries costs me about a buck. You can take it home and grind it in your coffee grinder for an outstandingly fresh powder. Toss it out after six months or a year, when the volatile, fragrant, oils have dissipated, and spend another buck to refresh your supply. Better yet, grind only a little at a time so you can have fresh-ground allspice regularly. Whole allspice, like many hard, whole spices, will stay perfectly fresh for years and years.

Or, visit the spice isle of any supermarket and spend close to $4 on a .75 ounce bottle of ground allspice that already tastes like nearly nothing. Then please explain to me why you would choose that. I can’t understand it myself.

In Jamaica, the branches and leaves of the tree have also been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The leaves are traditionally used to cover smoking meats, and the wood is good for smoking, as we use mesquite, hickory and applewood here.

Allspice wood for smoking is available in some parts of the U.S., but in the meantime you can pepper your charcoal with allspice berries to get some scented smoke going. Soaked some overnight before you cook out, and they’ll last longer in the coals.

Cane vinegar

I suspect this was the standard vinegar in traditional Jamaican cookery, although I haven’t yet found anything to back this up. The older books I’ve read refer to cane vinegar in recipes. Newer ones specified white vinegar, which is distilled from wheat.

Although both wheat and sugar cane are grasses, wheat grows in northerly climes, and is not a Jamaican crop. Sugar cane grows in warm regions, almost exclusively in the tropics. It was introduced to Jamaica in 1509, almost exactly 500 years ago as I write this. There it became one of the island’s principal crops.

The heyday of the rum distillery is long over – there were 7 distilleries on the island as of 2006, down from a peak of over 600 in the 19th century – sugar still makes up around half of the nation’s (legal) agricultural export. Therefore, whenever I come upon vinegar in a Jamaican recipe, I use cane vinegar

I read that cane vinegar is the most common vinegar used in the Philippines, and sure enough, when I found a store with several varieties of cane vinegar – Viet Hoa on Monona Drive again – they all were produced in the Philippines.

I tried a few kinds, and the best tasting by far was Datu Puti brand Sukang Iloco (sugarcane juice vinegar), labeled as “native vinegarâ€? and “guaranteed naturally fermented vinegar.â€? Look for a clear glass bottle with a red and orange label and an illustration of a man wearing what looks like traditional island warrior dress.

Besides being as sharp and tart as you would expect vinegar to be, it has the rich, warm cast of molasses and caramel.

I found a great article called I’m Gonna Git You, Suka (suka is Filipino for vinegar) about the various varieties of vinegar used in the Philipines on the Filipino-food blog Burnt Lumpia: Finding identity through food. Datu Puti Sukang Iloco is one of the brands reviewed. Recommended reading.

Thyme

A shrubby member of the mint family, thyme has a complex, bright flavor and a strong, savory aroma. Here in Wisconsin, it’s a moderately tender perennial, and I’ve grown it in pots for years. It seems to withstand all but our harshest winters. Consequently I’ve had to replant it a few times. It’s a fragrant addition to the garden, and supposedly a natural insect repellant, too.

Once you’ve cooked with fresh thyme, you’ll begin to consider dried thyme close to useless. I highly recommend you grow your own, or buy packs of fresh sprigs from the produce section of your supermarket. If you won’t be using it up within a few weeks, you can keep it in the freezer. Not quite as good, but still a more vibrant flavor than dried.

To use fresh thyme, use your fingers or fingernails to strip the leaves off the woodier stems. If the stems are so tender that you can’t strip the leaves off without their breaking, no worries. That means the stems are tender enough to go in the dish.

Another way to use fresh thyme is to throw in the whole sprig, and then fish it out of the pot at the end.

If you decide to substitute dried thyme, cut down the amount substantially. Just a teaspoon of dried thyme will stand in for a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves or a sprig of thyme. Be much more sparing with dried thyme. Too much of it will give food an acrid, woody, almost moldy taste. Fresh thyme doesn’t pose that problem, for some reason. I suppose the flavor compounds change with drying.

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