Caribbean food supremo Shivi Ramoutar shows how that old jar of allspice can weave some everyday magic
Ground allspice: it's quite likely you'll have a jar deeply tucked into a dark crevice that your fingers stumble over trying to locate the cinnamon or nutmeg in your spice rack. You may have used it once before in some recipe that you found on the internet, but you can't really remember. It is a sad truth that allspice just isn't as lauded as it should be.
If you take in a good whiff of allspice, the aroma is warming, sweet, spicy, earthy, peppery and aromatic. It's not dissimilar to the usual suspects: ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, ground coriander and nutmeg. And this explains how the spice came by its name. It is ground from the dried, unripe berries of the pimento tree, originally native to Jamaica. It is believed that one of the first uses of allspice was by the indigenous Caribbean people who used the leaves and wood in a meat-smoking process - a barbacoa, identified as one of the original forms of a barbecue.
It is one of the most important and indispensable spices in the Caribbean, but even outside of the tropics, allspice has become a key ingredient in ketchup, chutneys, jams and Moroccan tagines,, pickled herring and mulled wine and, in fact, many Christmas goodies have a decent, fat-fingered pinch of allspice. Its perfume is quite synonymous with the festive season: gingerbread, Christmas cake, Christmas pud and of course, mince pies are all dusted with it. Of course, Stateside, no Thanksgiving pumpkin pie would be complete without it. However, to me, special occasions aside, allspice can be used in simple ways to really brighten up everyday meals and snacks, both sweet and savoury - its versatility speaks for itself.
Jerk is quintessentially Caribbean, showing off allspice to its absolute best. Along with scotch bonnet and spring onions, it is the essence and key flavour of the marinade.
2 tsp ground allspice
4 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
3 tsp salt
4 bay leaves
½ cinnamon stick, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted
1 tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp grated ginger
2½ tsp thyme leaves
4 spring onions, coarsely chopped
1-2 (depending on how hot you want it!) scotch bonnet peppers, deseeded and chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp demerara sugar
1 tsp honey
3 tbsp oil
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp soy sauce
1 Throw all the ingredients into a food processor and blend until you get a fine puree.
2 Cover the meat/fish/vegetables in the marinade and leave in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking, or alternatively, add a couple of tablespoons of the paste to a barbecue sauce, or ketchup, to make a great jerk barbecue/jerk ketchup, for dipping chips, or serving with burgers and meats. Any leftover paste will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Photo: Allspice: it's well-known as a festive spice, but allspice can also be used to brighten up everyday meals and snacks Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian