Essential Caribbean Pantry Ingredients
The Caribbean Islands are a true culinary melting pot, with African, Chinese, Indian, European and other cooking styles colliding with the natural bounty of tropical foods to create culinary magic. While each island has its own variations, there's a joyful, summery shared flavor that keeps travelers coming back for more.
The incredible fresh fish and produce, and uniquely Caribbean seasonings, make even simple dishes memorable. Spices and herbs are plentiful, with allspice berries, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon grown there. Turmeric, ginger, paprika, and fresh thyme are also abundant and used in the distinctive dishes of each region. Anywhere you visit, you will encounter rice and peas, curries, flat breads, callaloo, and stews made from goat and other meats. Fresh fish, conch and shrimp are traditional, as is saltfish — a preserved fish holdover from the slave trade.
Your Caribbean Pantry
The sunny flavors of Jamaica and the West Indies may be a plane ride away, but the ingredients are available to give you a tantalizing taste of authentic island flavor. With a trip to the store (or a handy website) to stock up on beans, rice, coconut milk, spices and other delectable foods, you can summon the scents and tastes of a faraway place, without leaving home.
Visitors quickly learn that the word "peas" actually refers to most kinds of pulses, most commonly the red kidney bean, black bean, or pigeon or gungo pea. The classic combo of peas and rice is a plant-based classic, and the combo provides complete protein, carbs, fiber and minerals in an inexpensive package. Try this recipe for Bahamian Style Peas and Rice.
Long grain white rice or Jasmine rice is a staple in the Caribbean, either with "peas" or as a side for stews, curries, and other dishes. Pilaf-style dishes cooked with spices, vegetables, and stock are popular, as is coconut rice, where coconut milk replaces much of the liquids and infuses the tender rice with rich coconut flavor.
Coconut palms grow all over the islands, and coconuts are utilized in every course, from breakfast to dessert. Coconut water is the electrolyte rich liquid that sloshes around inside the coconut, and not the same thing as coconut milk. Coconut milk is made by grinding the meat of a mature coconut with water, then straining out the fiber. Coconut milk is rich with the healthful form of saturated fat found in coconuts, called medium chain triglycerides, and also manganese, magnesium, copper, iron, and selenium. Luscious coconut rice, and dishes simmered in coconut milk, are always a treat. Try this savory recipe for Trinidad Stewed Chicken.
Plantains look like large bananas, but are eaten cooked. When the skin is green, the fruit inside is not sweet at all, and is cooked more like a potato, in stews, vegetable dishes, or fried. When the skin is black, the fruit is called "sweet plantain", but still needs to be cooked to enjoy. They're a good source of fiber, vitamins A, C, and B-6, and the minerals magnesium and potassium. Try this recipe for Fried Plantains.
The tropical climate is perfect for growing abundant mangos, papayas, pineapple, passionfruit, guava, bananas, and more. If you have only had mangos and papayas stateside, you will be blown away by the intense flavors and fiberless textures of just-picked tree-ripened fruits. The glorious sunny fruits of the tropics are packed with Vitamin C and fiber.
Unlike most fruits, papaya and pineapple offer unique proteolytic enzymes, which work to break down proteins into separate amino acids. That makes them good for tenderizing meats, as well as for helping to digest protein foods. Try this recipe for Caribbean Fruity Salsa, made with papaya, pineapple, and mango.
The Scotch bonnet is the most popular variety of hot pepper in the Caribbean, and it has a fruity, sweet flavor that is perfectly suited to the dishes of the tropics. If you can find them, be sure to wear gloves when handling the innocent-looking orange or red "bonnet" shaped peppers. Like all hot peppers, Scotch bonnets are very low in calories, and high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. Try this recipe for Scotch Bonnet Hot Sauce.
Sweet red and green bell peppers are added to many dishes, and are often served stuffed and grilled, as well. In Jamaica, the "holy trinity" or green peppers, celery, and scallions is the mix of aromatics that is often sautéed at the start of a savory dish like a stew, or rice and peas. This recipe for Jamaican Cabbage includes bell peppers and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Several varieties of deep green leafy vegetables are are cooked in the Islands, notably amaranth, taro leaf, collards, kale, and spinach. The dish called callaloo is made across the Caribbean, with regional variations, but is always a well-stewed pot of spicy greens.
Scallions and Garlic
The bright, mild flavor of scallions is essential to the foods of the Islands. They are usually sautéed with other aromatics and spices, rather than added raw. Garlic is an indispensable part of marinades and savory dishes as well.
Many of the distinctive spice blends of the Caribbean are available, from jerk rubs to all-purpose Caribbean seasonings. Combinations of cayenne or Scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, onion, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, and thyme give you a convenient flavor boost, or you can make your own blend. The Jerk Chicken Wings (pictured above) bring the heat with habanero peppers. You might also like this 5-star recipe for Lisa's Jerk Chicken, which includes Scotch bonnet peppers.