11 Essential Ingredients for West Indian Food

by Samantha Ballenger
allspice berry

Pantry Essentials for West Indian Food

Known for its complex spices and flavors, West Indian food is more than Jerk Chicken. Every West Indian pantry has certain ingredients. However, depending on the country, there may be some variables or differences. For example, in Jamaica, Guyana, Saint Kitts, and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago, there will be curry. While in other Caribbean countries, there are more herbs such as coriander and basil.

The list of ingredients below are in every Caribbean pantry; they provide the unique flavor West Indian food is known for.

allspice berry

1. Allspice

Allspice smells like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg…all in one hints the name Allspice. However, allspice is not a blend of multiple spices; it is actually the dried berry from the Pimenta dioica tree. Used for flavor, the fresh leaves are similar to bay leaves. Allspice is native to Jamaica; however, it is used heavily in West Indian food and Middle Eastern and Latin food. Allspice is well known for its use in jerk chicken and its use to flavor curries, stews, and rice dishes.

Keep your Allspice stored in your pantry in an airtight jar away from sunlight. Whole Allspice can be kept for years while ground Allspice should be used within 6 months for best flavor.

2. Bay Leaf

Just about any slow cooked recipe you can think of includes a bay leaf in the recipe, West Indian food is no different. Bay Leaf comes from the bay laurel plant which grows in warm regions and has a subtle depth that when cooked with allows flavors from other spices to shine through.

Stored in an airtight container away from light and air, bay leaves can last for up to two years if stored properly.

3. Beans

Beans, beans good for your heart…we all know how that saying ends. But it’s true, countless studies have shown that beans are good for you. When you cook beans using spices like garlic, curry and peppers and add them to rice you have a quintessential West Indian dish. Known as rice and beans or rice and pigeon pigeon peas.

The most popular beans are dark red kidney beans, pigeon peas, and black beans. Dried beans stored in an airtight container can last for up to two years, however, they can essentially last much longer than that.

4. Bouillon

Bouillon has a bad rap. You might remember the gravy your mother would make that tasted like nothing but salt. However, there are brands of bouillon that offer great flavor and convenience without the weird salt taste. It is convenient and adds a depth of flavor to stews, rice, beans and is versatile.

Cloves on white board

5. Cloves

Cloves are a strong spice that reminds many of us of the holidays. In Caribbean food, cloves are used for both savory and sweet recipes most notably jerk chicken. You also find cloves used in rum cocktails and stews.

Stored in an airtight container in a cool dark place, whole cloves stay fresh for up to a year. While ground cloves begin to lose their potency after three months.

6. Coconut

Coconut is so much more than coconut water or dried coconut flakes. Used widely in the Caribbean, coconut is local and essential. Most of the coconut is edible, including the water and meat. Coconut cream is made by soaking coconut meat in hot water, the cream rises to the top and what is left is coconut milk. Used in rice dishes, stews, and everything in between.

Buy cans of coconut cream or milk for convenience and less hassle.

Probably one of the most versatile items in your pantry, cornmeal is synonymous with West Indian Food. Used in both savory and sweet meals from sweet cornmeal pone to savory cornmeal cou-cou, porridge, and puddings.

Cornmeal stored in an airtight container in the pantry can last for up to 12 months. In warm climates consider storing cornmeal in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent weevils or moths from invading.

7. Corn Meal

8. Curry

Jamaican curry is the most popular and well-known curry used in West Indian food. Curry powder is especially popular in Jamaica and Trinidad. Curried goat, chicken, stews, and lamb are quintessential recipes in Caribbean kitchens. The main ingredients in curry powder are turmeric, cumin, and coriander with any mix of other spices such as black pepper, ginger, or cloves

Curry powder stored in an airtight container in a cool dark place can lastsfor up to 6 months.

Garlic Bulbs

10. Garlic

Garlic is most likely in your pantry already, and honestly what doesn’t go well with garlic? Used in just about every cuisine around the world, it is no exception in West Indian staples. Find garlic in stews, curries, and rice dishes, plan on garlic being essential for your West Indian pantry.

Whole unpeeled garlic kept in an open container like a garlic keeper and in a cool dark place can last for up to three months.

Hot Peppers

11. Pepper Sauces

Scotch bonnet peppers usually come to mind when West Indian food is mentioned. Known for their heat and flavor, scotch bonnet peppers are perfect for jerk recipes. Maybe less well-known are the array of pepper sauces you find in West Indian food. Pepper sauces is a condiment used widely in Caribbean cuisines. Each island has its staples and most families have their own recipes. Pepper sauce can be homemade or store-bought.

For best flavor pepper sauces should be consumed within 6 months to a year. However, they can last indefinitely. Use your peppers in this pepper sauce recipe.

12. Rice

You can’t make rice and peas without rice. Who wants to eat jerk chicken without rice and peas, no one that’s who. Rice is a staple pantry ingredient in West Indian food. Long grain white rice is the most common rice. Rice dishes like rice and peas, fried rice, pelao (chicken and rice), and curries served over rice are mainstays.

Rice stored in a airtight container can last for up to two years, however for optimal flavor should be used in one year.

What is your favorite West Indian pantry staple? Am I missing anything you think should be on the list? Let me know in the comments section!

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