Cooking With Chef Sian: Caribbean Herbs & Spices

Fresh herbs and veggies

Caribbean Herbs and Spices (the essential list)

Be warned. This will be gonna be along ever evolving list.
Once upon a time, some years ago I had an epiphany. Cultural cuisine is define by taste and technique. Not exactly a life changing revelation but a significant one nonetheless. I mean chicken is chicken in any country. But add some curry or a little masala and you’ve suddenly embarked on a culinary journey.

The flavors in authentic Caribbean cuisine comes from the use of fresh produce, herbs and spices. Following is a list of essentials for any Caribbean cook.  Regardless of where in the world you are many of the ingredients  on this list will look familiar.  That can be credited in part to the large migration of  African, Asians and and Western Europeans to the Caribbean over the centuries. Look closely and you will see that the faces and the foods of Trinidad is a reflection of India. Cuba and Spain are close cousins. The Jamaican motto “Out of Many One People” holds true in both our cuisine and culture.

As you read through the list please comment by telling me what did I miss? What’s your favorite  spice? How do you use it?

Ginger – can be incorporated into almost any Caribbean dish and it frequently is. Ginger also provides some medicinal benefits. It has been proven to beneficial an appetite stimulant, a digestive aid, and to ease stomach discomfort just to name a few.


scallions or green onions
Scallions – also called escallions or green onions. Scallions are used to flavor fish, meats, soups, fritters, and many other savory Caribbean dishes. Scallion and Onion can be used interchangeably in any recipe.
garlic bulbs
Never mind that garlic is low in calories and high in nutrients. I would be hard pressed to think of a meat dish that Jamaicans cook that does not include garlic. It has also been proven effective in fighting ailments including the common cold, high blood pressure and alzheimer’s just to name a few. 


Thyme has a pleasant aromatic flavor and is used to season meats, soups and other savory dishes. It can also be used to make tea. There are over 60 known species of thyme throughout the world 3 (broadleaf, fine leaf and regular) of which are heavily used in Caribbean cuisine. Besides cooking; thyme leaves and oil can be used to treat stomachaches, diarrhea, arthritis, cough and a number of other maladies.
cinnamon sticks
Cinnamon is used universally for medicinal and culinary purposes. Still it is so heavily used in Caribbean cooking that I couldn’t imagine leaving it off this list. Cinnamon adds a rich fragrant flavor to porridges, drinks, desserts and cakes.


nutmeg with mace
Nutmeg is used as flavoring in many porridges, desserts and hot beverages. Though less common, it can also be used as a flavoring for savory dishes. Nutmeg is dried in its shell for up to 3 month before the shell is broken and the nut is grated for use. Mace, The outer covering of the nutmeg shell is used in cakes, custards, sauces, soups, fish and meat dishes. Mace has a peppery nutmeg like flavor and is dried before it is used.


allspice aka pimento berries
Allspice or pimento berries are used extensively in Mediterranean and Caribbean cuisine. These aromatic berries are one of the main ingredients in Jamaican jerk seasoning. Allspice is also used to make other seasonings including mole, curries and to flavor juices like rum punch.
Cumin is a tiny seed with big flavor. Used to make seasonings like curry, chili powder and several Mexican seasonings cumin has a peppery flavor. Cumin is also a good source of iron, copper, calcium and other vitamins. Cumin, parsley and dill all belong to the same family.

Turmeric a peppery, slightly bitter relative of ginger.; turmeric is used heavily by many Caribbean cooks. Tumeric is one of the main ingredients in most West Indian curries and mustard. Tumeric is also used by Indians and Chinese as an anti– inflammatory medicine.

Coriander or cilantro seeds (the seed of the cilantro plant) is most popular among the Caribbean Indian population. Coriander seeds have a lemony flavor. It is one the ingredients  used to make various curries. In Indian cuisine it is combined with cumin to masala, a sauce thickener.

Cilantro is heavily featured in Spanish Caribbean cooking. This spicy green herb is used to make many salsas sauces and salads. Cilantro also helps to combat high cholesterol.
Basil is used to flavor many Caribbean dishes including seafood and beef dishes and rice. There are several varieties of basil found throughout the Caribbean.  Basil is one of the main flavorings in Guyanese black pudding.


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