Spices of the Caribbean Basin

Source: Caribbean Agribusiness

Spices used in Gastronomy

Spices are the aromatic parts or seasonings of various plants and trees traditionally used to flavor food. However, many spices are used for other purposes, such as medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumery, or for eating as vegetables. For example, turmeric is also used as a preservative; liquorice  as a medicine; garlic as a vegetable. Some popular spices include clove, ginger, onion, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, black pepper, paprika, saffron and turmeric. Some spices come from the bark or roots of certain plants, but the majority are berries, seeds, or dried fruits.

Although spices have been used since ancient times, they are playing a new and important role in modern food preparation. They not only add unique flavors to our food, but contribute colour and variety as well. Certain spices and herbs used alone, or in blends, can replace or reduce salt and sugar in foods. Spices add very little nutritive value to foods and are generally low in calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol.

Some spices such as allspice and chilies are native to parts of the Caribbean and Central America. While many of the world’s spices originated in tropical areas, over time, spices that originated in Asia were cultivated in Africa and the Caribbean. Spices were also brought from Central America and cultivated in Asia and Africa. Presently, some countries specialize in the cultivation of specific spices. Presently in some geographic areas and countries the cultivation of specific spices is conducted. For instance black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are cultivated in tropical climates, while other spices are generally cultivated in temperate climates. Within the Caribbean, Grenada is famous for nutmeg, being the world’s second largest producer.


The nutmeg tree belongs to the genus Myristica of which there are several species. The nutmeg tree is important for two spices which are derived from the fruit, nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the actual seed of the tree, roughly egg-shaped and about 20 to 30 mm (0.8 to 1 in) long and 15 to 18 mm (0.6 to 0.7 in) wide. Mace is the dried covering of the seed. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. Other commercial products are also produced from nutmeg trees, for example essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter. The common or fragrant nutmeg, Myristica fragrans is native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia but is also cultivated in Malaysia, India and the Caribbean, especially in Grenada.

Nutmeg is usually used in ground or grated form and is used for flavoring many dishes. In the Caribbean, nutmeg is often used in drinks such as the Barbados rum punch. Typically it is sprinkled on the top of the drink. The pericarp (pod) is used in Grenada to make a jam. In Indonesia, the fruit is also used to make jam or is sliced and cooked with sugar to make a fragrant candy (nutmeg sweets).

Grenada earned its name as the “Isle of Spice” of the Caribbean because of the many types of spices grown on the island. Grenada was the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg after Indonesia before the devastation of the industry by Hurricane Ivan. The country’s major export crops are nutmeg and mace but other spices cultivated in Grenada include cinnamon, pimento, clove and bay leaf. Nutmegs and mace are exported and are widely used for culinary and pharmaceutical purposes. Locally they are both used as food flavorings, and seasonings, while the pericarp (fruit) is used for making jams, jellies, syrups, juices and candy.

In 2003, it was estimated that nutmeg was grown in pure stand on about 500 ha (1,300 acres). In addition, nutmeg trees were grown on a further 4,500 ha of farmland, inter-planted with other crops. Before the hurricane, there were a total of approximately 10,000 registered nutmeg farmers on the island equivalent to about 10% of the population. A further 20,000 depend in part on the industry for a living. Exports have remained fairly constant in recent years at around 200-250 MT per year, with any surplus production going into stocks. The total income from sales of green nutmeg and mace has averaged about EC$ 24 million (60% of the total agricultural export) annually for the past five years.

Grenada’s nutmeg industry is controlled by the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association (GCNA) , which has a monopoly on the marketing and exporting of nutmeg and mace and sets the price paid to growers who must be registered. Nutmeg plantations and infrastructure suffered substantially from the onslaught of hurricanes Ivan and Emily with damage estimated at US$ 2,466,046 million.

The minor spice industry is a small developing sub-sector in Grenada. The major commodities, grown on approximately 106 acres, are cinnamon, clove, pimento and bay leaf. The main markets for the spices are the CARICOM regional market and the domestic market. Approximately 80 percent of total production is exported as raw material, and 20 percent as value added products. Damage to the minor spice industry by Hurricane Ivan’s s was estimated at US$ 144,503.

Apart from Grenada, other main CARICOM producers of nutmeg and mace include Trinidad and Tobago, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. Nutmeg exports from CARICOM are almost completely dominated by Grenada with the main export markets being North America and Europe. In addition to dried nutmeg for export, opportunities may exist in value added production of nutmeg oil.

Nutmeg and Mace Production in Main CARICOM-Producing Countries

Production (tones)

COUNTRY ITEM 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Grenada Nutmeg, mace and cardamoms 1150 F 2700 F 2800 F 2800 F M
Jamaica Nutmeg, mace and cardamoms 155 F 155 155 F 155 F M

Hot Peppers

Caribbean Hot Peppers are widely consumed locally fresh at the household and food service industry levels. Significant quantities are utilised for local processing of pepper-based products and also as exports to both North America and the United Kingdom.

A market intelligence study conducted by CARICOM for the Regional Transformation Program revealed significant facts about the hot pepper industry in the Caribbean. The variety of Hot Pepper mainly cultivated is the ‘Scotch Bonnet’ and ‘Habanero’ types and various landraces. Jamaica conducts some production of almost “pure” scotch bonnet. In Guyana local varieties include the Wiri Wiri, Tiger tooth and Suriname Cherry. In the area of local processing and export markets, the study revealed that Caribbean producers face ongoing competition. Processors periodically import pepper mash to supplement local supplies of fresh pepper due to shortfall in supplies and/or due to higher prices on the local market.


The pimento tree is indigenous to the Caribbean Islands and was found growing in Jamaica by early Spanish explorers. Pimento trees were later discovered in Cuba, presumably taken there by migratory birds which had eaten the berries. Pimento has also been found in Mexico, but Jamaica demonstrates the longest history, demonstrating continuous production since the tree was identified in about the year 1509.

The pimento tree, Pimenta dioica, formerly officinalis, Lindl., belongs to the family Myrtaceae, having close relationship to the Bay Tree and Cloves. Pimento is the major spice produced in Jamaica, and Jamaica is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pimento. When compared to pimentos from other geographical locations, Jamaica’s pimentos are known for their high quality due to their appearance, flavour and size. The quality of pimento is rated by the amount of oil it contains and the composition of the oil. Jamaica’s pimento contains about 4% volatile oil and the eugenol content varies from 30-90%. The export of pimento products is estimated to earn the Jamaican economy US$ 5 million annually.


The main onion-producing countries in the Caribbean are Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis. The crop is primarily grown almost entirely for domestic consumption and use in condiments. The region is a strong net importer of onion. According to the Landell Mills study on the promotion of the regional agribusiness sector, the supply of onions was calculated at 40.3 million kg of which 36.6 million kg was imported and 3.7 million kg produced regionally. Trinidad and Tobago imports onions from South America, and repackages for re-export to other countries.

Onion Production in Main CARICOM Producing Countries

Production (tones)

COUNTRY 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Antigua & Barbuda 150 F 190 F 190 190 F M
Barbados 347 442 450 450 F 450 F
Jamaica 311 234 215 455 M
St. Kitts & Nevis 55 19 22 51 M



Ginger is produced primarily in Jamaica and Guyana by small-scale farmers on mixed farms. Standards for ginger are only used for export purposes. . Ginger is mainly retailed at market stalls and in large supermarkets normally without packaging. Less than 10 percent of the domestic production is packaged for export, and this is traded regionally. Within the region small quantities are imported by the United Kingdom, Holland, the United States and Canada.

Ginger Production in Main CARICOM-Producing Countries

Production (tones)

COUNTRY 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Guyana 522 F 520 F 520 F 520 F M
Jamaica 702 259 241 298 M


Garlic is one of the main ingredients used in production of hot pepper sauce. Within the region all of the garlic available for consumption is imported primarily from Asia, Western Europe and the United States.

Condiments A condiment is defined as a substance (sauce, seasoning or vegetable) that is used to add flavor to food. In some cultures condiments are used to complement a dish. Examples of condiments include substances such as mustard, ketchup, pepper sauce, barbecue sauce and pickle.


A condiment is defined as a substance (sauce, seasoning or vegetable) that is used to add flavor to food. In some cultures condiments are used to complement a dish. Examples of condiments include substances such as mustard, ketchup, pepper sauce, barbecue sauce and pickle.

A popular condiment used in the Caribbean is pepper sauce, used either on its own or added to other condiments. The hot pepper industry is important to the Caribbean region for use as raw materials and also for the production of a wide range of condiments, in particular hot sauces, which are not only sold within the Caribbean but also in many global markets. Examples of Caribbean companies which do this include Suzie’s Hot Sauces in Antigua, Baron Foods in St. Lucia, Parry W Bellot in Dominica, and The Spur Tree in Jamaica, CARDI has been working to develop new varieties of hot peppers that perform better under the different environmental conditions in the region. This is because most of the region’s manufacturers of hot pepper based products have difficulties in securing sufficient supplies of the raw materials.

In Jamaica, herbs and spices have been identified as a main sub-sector for development. In this light, condiments such as chutneys and sauces are developed for both local and export markets. While spices like pimento are exported from Jamaica as whole dried grains they are also used as condiments in the famous ‘jerk seasoning’ and sauces, which are produced and presented as dry blends and wet blends. The wet blends usually contain acids and are pasteurized for increasing flavor and extending shelf life. “Jerk” is now utilized in culinary preparations and found on menus worldwide. Changes in the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) regulations for acidified foods require additional testing of Jamaica’s jerk seasoning and sauces.

The blend of herbs and spices are significant to the organoleptic quality of the jerk seasoning. Hot pepper (capsicum) is a primary ingredient of jerk seasoning and blends range from mild to very spicy. In addition to the original jerk seasoning several varieties of this sauce include barbeque-jerk, honey-jerk as well as a range of fruit-based jerk sauces. Markets have also been developed for the ingredients of jerk seasoning, such as pepper mash. Scotch Bonnet, which is a Jamaican hot pepper with a distinctive flavor, is used in the pepper mash. However, the West Indies Red is popular among farmers and processors because of its resilience in the field and also the attractive red color it gives to pepper mash and sauces.


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