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Top 10 Essential West Indian Ingredients

Pantry Items for Caribbean Cooking

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There are certain ingredients that can be found in every Caribbean kitchen. However, there are variances depending on the cultural influence on individual countries. For example, in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, an essential ingredient would be curry powder; for other countries, bay leaves and dried pasta are a must.

The following list of ingredients, however, you will find in all West Indian kitchens regardless of its make-up. These ingredients are at the top of the shopping list; these are the ingredients that give the cuisine its unique flavor and provide the key to many iconic West Indian meals.

1. Green Seasoning

Homemade bottled green seasoning
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

This is a blend of fresh herbs, onions, garlic and hot peppers. Depending on which country you are from, ground spices such as cloves, allspice and cinnamon are added to the mixture and imparts a unique flavor. This herb mixture is used to season seafood, poultry and meat for frying, stewing, baking or roasting. It is also used as a base, sautéed in hot oil to cook vegetables.

2. Hot Peppers

Scotch Bonnet pepper
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Scotch Bonnet pepper is the pepper of choice when cooking Caribbean cuisine. They are used to make the famous West Indian pepper sauces. Follow this link to find out how to control the heat when cooking with Scotch Bonnets.

3. Limes

Caribbean Limes
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Limes are used in combination with salt to wash/clean seafood, meat and poultry. The lime juice and salt are lightly added to the ingredient, tossed and rinsed thoroughly in water before use.

Fresh lime juice is also used as the base in certain pickles. On a hot day, jugs of lemonade are made with freshly squeezed lime juice, water, sugar and vanilla essence.

4. Salt Meat

Salted Pig Tail
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Salted pig tails and salted beef are used to flavor dishes and to season (salt) the food. Salt meat can be used in soups, stews and rice dishes. Learn how to cook with salt meat.

5. Dried Peas and Beans

Rehydrated Pigeon Peas
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Pigeon peas, kidney beans, black eye peas and yellow and green split peas are the most commonly used legumes in the English-speaking Caribbean. They are used to make rice and peas, stewed peas and one-pot rice dishes such as Pelau and Cook-up Rice.

6. Rice

Raw parboiled rice
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Rice is a staple and it is cooked daily. It is served as rice and peas or cooked plainly using the absorption method or by boiling and straining it. Long grain parboiled rice and long grain white rice are the two most common variety used.

Rice dishes such as Pelau, Fried Rice, Cook-up Rice, Spanish Rice etc. commonly make appearances on the dining table at weekends. We also use rice for desserts.

7. Coconuts

Dried coconuts
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Coconuts are used in both sweet and savory preparations. The flesh of the coconut as well as the milk (squeezed) from the freshly grated flesh are used. And yes, the coconut water as well. The coconut is primarily used in its fresh form. 

8. Ground Provisions

Ground Provisions
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

These are tubular root vegetables such as cassava (yucca), sweet potatoes, eddoes, dasheen and yams. Learn how to cook with these Caribbean root vegetables. They are hearty and nutritious.

9. Cornmeal

Cornmeal
Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Finely ground cornmeal is used to make sweet and savory dishes. Cou-cou (cornmeal cooked low and slow with okras - think polenta) and dumplings are among the savory offerings, porridge and conkies (a steamed pudding) are among the sweet offerings.

10. Bouillon Cubes

Instead of liquid stock, bouillon cubes are used to flavor most of the dishes when cooking, whether it is a stew, a sauce, soup or rice and peas.

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