The Caribbean region has long been described as a melting pot, with many cultures and ethnicities represented. The region is made up of over 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays, and is home to more than 43 million people. The cultural diversity present in this region is reflected in its cuisine with influences from African, Creole, Cajun, Amerindian, European, Latin American, Indian/South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures. African culture has left a lasting mark in Caribbean history bringing music, dance, cuisine, and customs while the region was under colonial rule. This influence has undeniably shaped the Caribbean into what it is today. There are some common ingredients used in dishes throughout Caribbean cuisine such as rice, plantains, beans, cassava, chickpeas, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, coconut, and various meats like beef, pork, fish, and poultry. Here are some of the top herbs and spices used on these types of dishes in the region and how they may benefit your health:
Also known as Jamaica pepper or pimenta, this seasoning actually comes from dried berries which are ground to create allspice. It is used to treat indigestion, gas and abdominal pain, diarrhea, high blood pressure, diabetes and weight management, and is sometimes also used topically for muscle pain, toothaches, or to kill germs in traditional medicine. Allspice can be found in both sweet and savory Caribbean dishes. It is an essential ingredient in Jamaican jerk – a sweet, tangy, and spicy seasoning used throughout the Caribbean region, and is also used on its own to season seafood dishes.
While not originally from the Caribbean region, cinnamon has become an essential part of its cuisine. Cinnamon is used in savory meat dishes, sweet plantain dishes, and also incorporated into drinks like rum punch and coquito, a creamy Puerto Rican seasonal beverage. Medicinally, it’s known for its blood sugar lowering abilities, improving insulin sensitivity, and also for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Cloves can be incorporated into dishes whole or ground and their most popular use is in jerk seasoning. They can also be used as a spice for ham or roast pork to be used in a Cuban sandwich. Cloves are an important component of curry sauce combined with other spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Cloves are sometimes used to relieve pain and can actually kill bacteria so are applied topically to open wounds or injuries when used in traditional medicine. Research suggests they may also help protect against cancer cells and reduce stomach ulcers.
Ginger is a staple in every Caribbean kitchen, especially fresh ginger. It is used in some of this region’s most popular drinks like ginger beer and a Dark and Stormy cocktail. In addition to being used in Jamaican jerk, ginger is also incorporated into baked goods and savory dishes like Caribbean ginger and garlic chicken. Ginger has many health benefits, many of which stem back to an important one of its components – gingerol. It has historically been used to aid digestion, soothe the gut, and ease nausea and morning sickness.
Nutmeg is actually grown in the Caribbean and is a fragrant spice made from the seed of the nutmeg tree. It is another pantry staple in the Caribbean, especially in Grenada, and is used in a variety of ways from alcoholic beverages to flavoring sauces, desserts, and porridge. Nutmeg has several health benefits including being a rich source of antioxidants, and containing anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Scotch bonnet peppers are the most widely used pepper in the Caribbean region and got their name due to their flattened, bonnet-like shape. They may also be referred to as “Bahama mamas” or “Jamaican hots,” depending on the region. These peppers are used both fresh and dried and come in red, green, and yellow varieties. Scotch bonnet peppers are an essential component of the famous Caribbean pepper sauce, which is often used as a condiment and seasoning for meat, fish, and poultry. Scotch bonnet peppers are an excellent source of the compound capsaicin, which boasts many potential health benefits from reducing headache and rheumatoid pain to helping with bad breath when used in traditional medicine.