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Caribbean Pantry

Elements of West Indies Cuisine

Allspice: Also known as pimiento or Jamaican pepper, it's made from the aromatic berries of a Caribbean tree. One of the defining ingredients in Jamaican jerk and French West Indian fish soups, allspice seems to encompass the tastes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves?hence its name.

Annatto seed: Known as achiote in Spanish, this is a rust-colored, earthy-flavored seed. Considered the poor man's saffron by some, it's used in Spanish Caribbean rice dishes and French West Indian stews.

Calabaza: This large, round Caribbean pumpkin has a dense, bright-orange flesh. The flavor is similar to that of butternut squash, which makes a good substitute.

Coconut milk: The "cream" of the tropics, produced by blending freshly grated coconut with hot water. Taste of Thai makes a canned "lite" coconut milk that's great to use in healthy Caribbean cooking.

Conch: This giant sea snail's delicate, mild, white flesh is used in dishes ranging from salads to stews to steaks. You can substitute bay scallops if you can't find conch.

Guava: An egg-shaped tropical fruit with a musky, perfumy flavor. Because it contains numerous seeds, it's generally enjoyed as juice or jelly.

Pigeon pea: A brown, oval bean originally hailing from Africa; in the Caribbean, also known as the gunga (Congo) pea and the pois d'Angole (Angola pea). Endowed with a nutty, earthy flavor, the pigeon pea is often paired with rice.

Plantain: A jumbo cooking banana that can be eaten at every stage of ripeness. When green, it tastes starchy, like a potato; when ripe, it tastes sweet, like a banana.

Scotch bonnet chile: This chile, shaped like a Chinese lantern, is one of the world's hottest?50 times hotter than a jalapeno. Behind all that heat is a complex flavor that's earthy, floral, and apricotlike all at once. If you can't find the Scotch bonnet, you can substitute its Mexican cousin, the habanero.