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Curry: The Spice of Island Life

In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, Jamaica native Clara, who lives in London, notes to her husband, “You said the Iqbals are comin’ to dinner. I was just thinkin’ … if they’re going to want me to cook dem some curry — I mean, I can cook curry — but it’s my type of curry.”

Clara is worried that the Iqbals, who are Bangladeshi, will find her Caribbean curry unfamiliar, a different species entirely from Southeast Asian curry.

Curry is an ambiguous label for a fish or meat course stewed with a mixture of pungent spic-es. The Caribbean and Southeast Asian varieties are not in fact dissimilar, though each has a unique flavor.

Christopher Columbus is almost directly responsible for the parallel: A little more than 500 years ago, when he stumbled on the islands of the West Indies as he looked for new trade routes to India, he discovered chili peppers, one of the prime components of curry. Columbus brought the native Caribbean chilies — which are referred to as Scotch bonnet, Congo, habanero or bird peppers, depending on the island culture or language — to India and China, which incorporated them into their cuisine.

caribbean peppers

Ironically, about 200 years later, when Indian and Chinese immigrants settled on many Caribbean islands, they brought chili peppers with them. That’s when they introduced the islanders to curry, which in addition to chili peppers, occasionally contains ginger, a root that has taken so well to the Jamaican climate it might as well be an indigenous crop; you can find ginger in the marketplaces in its natural root form, crystallized or as a powder.

The Indian method of preparing curry became common, so much so that in Jamaica, curry goat is practically a national dish. In the end, the only real difference between Jamaican and Indian curry is the inclusion of allspice, also known as pimento, a dried berry native to Jamaica that tastes like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

Likewise, Scotch bonnet chilies and allspice berries are the main ingredients of Jamaica’s rightfully famous jerk seasoning, which is a combination of up to 20 different spices.

This post was created for Away We Go with Carnival, the destination for getting in the getaway state of mind.