Sofrito – Use of Spices in the Caribbean

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Spices are made from roots, fruits, stems, seeds, and bark. Caribbean spices are an interplay of Aboriginal, European, African, and Oriental influences that are repeated and are found on all islands, therefore a traveler will find many of the same spices in a Caribbean meal no matter where he eats. French or Spanish, English or Dutch, are reflected and used daily.

There are variables in recipes throughout the Caribbean but they are small. It all depends on supply and demand, depending on what is available on that particular island. Evolution in the kitchen is rapidly taking place as the flow of tourism changes.

Sofrito sauce is made from annatto seeds, coriander leaves, tiny green peppers, onion, garlic and tomatoes in olive oil at low heat, this will give you an idea of how spices are used in Hispanic households and how it reflects the way spices are used today in most parts of the Caribbean. Because of the traders and settlers from the Orient, China, and India, each of the Islands adapted its own use of spices depending on their likes and dislikes.

Today no stew on the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean starts without the cooks first buying a bunch of “sive”, which is scallion tied together in bunches with parsley, coriander leaves and thyme. On the Spanish speaking islands dozens of recipes are part of the same herb base.

Meat and fish are likely to be marinated and seasoned with herbs and spices. Ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and all-spice are heavily used. Cinnamon is used in the islands as one of the preferred spices. Hot peppers are a must, known in the United States as chili peppers. Peppers are for the most part indistinguishable from one another except for the degree it burns in the mouth. Islanders, Jamaicans for instance, will argue over the Scotch Bonnet and the Country pepper. Good cooks know not to overuse peppers and to protect against annihilation of other flavors. Use with caution.

Indentured servants from the Orient, China, and mostly from India in the 18th century brought in a new approach and integration of spices, such as curry. On some islands, particularly the Dutch Islands, it is called “kerry”. The French Islanders call it “colombo”. It is used not only for its exotic flavor, but also because it causes perspiration and therefore cools the body.

There are also many medicinal uses for spices; however I will cover this in one of my future articles.