Friday, September 29, 2017

Taino-Carib: A to Z

Taíno-Carib A to Z
Copyright 2017


Have you ever had delicious Jamaican jerk chicken, fish or pork? "Jerk", is related to jerky, from a Maya word for drying meat. Jamaican jerk is the local name for the indigenous Yamaye Taíno form of cooking on a grill, called barbecoa, the origin of the word barbecue. Two of the main spices in jerk are habañero peppers and pimento, or allspice.

Before jerk chicken, there was jerk pork, mainly from wild pigs hunted by Jamaican Maroons. Maroon, is from the word Cimarron (meaning "untamed"), who were originally Taínos who had moved themselves away into the wilds from subjugation on Spanish ranches. In English, "Maroon" later described those enslaved Africans and mestizos who had escaped into the wilds to join and learn from the Cimarrones. 

For millennia, in the Western Hemisphere the Taíno and Kalinago (or Island Carib) people of the Caribbean had been using spices, foodstuffs and technologies that eventually entered the Eastern Hemisphere, beginning in 1492.  For both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres the most important event of the second millennium AD was the Columbian Encounter. The Encounter began when the voyages of Christopher Columbus brought the Eastern and Western Hemispheres together upon his entry into the tropical region of a territory which came to be known as the Caribbean. Although there is evidence of Chinese and other Precolumbian contact, the 1492 event was sustained when competitive European rivalries saught to exploit the Americas for trade goods, exotic woods and precious minerals. The ancient islands and continents of this western hemisphere came to be called the New World and ultimately the Americas. Obviously, “New” only applied to the Europeans whose recorded knowledge of the Americas began in the 15th century AD. There is no doubt that these Amerindian encounters resulted in the greatest impact on the forming of our modern civilizations. 

This article is the first that begins alphabetically with an ancient Tropical American spice that, in one "All-spice" berry, contained multiple flavors of those spices originally obtained mainly by overland caravans from Mollucca Island group in Indonesia.

During the Middle Ages, Chinese, Arab and Malay traders purchased nutmeg in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia and carried it in boats to the Persian Gulf or by camel and pack animal on the Silk Road. From the Gulf the spices made their way to Constantinople and Damascus and eventually Europe.---
(Constantinople fell last to the Turks by 1453). ... a Turkish Blockade to stop trade with Europe and fostered pirate sea raids. With the Turkish blockade, Spain was about to be introduced to the Caribbean’s Allspice.


Allspice (all-spice) 1. The English word for the Taíno berry which is grown commercially in Jamaica.
2. Locally called pimento (from the Spanish "pimenta", who thought that it was a pepper) and exported internationally as allspice.
3. A most unusual spice which is reputed to have the combined flavors of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and a mild pepper. 4. Once called “Jamaica pepper” by the 17th century British. In 1662 (three years before seizing the island from the Spanish) a British comment in London described Jamaica Pepper as “that most delicate of Spices”. Imported in Europe in 1601.

In search of lucrative spices from the East the explorer Christopher Columbus brought back what some Europeans called “false” spices from the Caribbean. To them “true” spices were black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon imported since ancient times from the East Indies through the Arab markets of North Africa. The expansion of the Turkish empire effectively cut off Europe from its overland source of almost indispensable Asian spices. Cinnamon came from Siri Lanka, nutmeg and cloves from the Muluccan Islands of Indonesia and black pepper from India. Columbus’ first voyage took him to the Caribbean in 1492. This voyage was intended to find a sea route to the East to obtain the spices of the (East) Indies. The rival Portuguese chose to reach the East by a route around the southern tip of Africa. Columbus believed that a better route was to sail west across the Atlantic to arrive in Asia. In the Caribbean, on his 1492 voyage, Columbus did encounter the genetic relatives of Asiatic peoples who called themselves Tainos. One of the results of his expeditions to the Caribbean was an introduction of ancient spices and foodstuffs of the Americas to Europe. Both the Spanish and Portuguese were later responsible for the spreading of many of the important products of the Americas to the rest of the world. One of the Caribbean products introduced to other cultures was allspice.

To the European taste buds the allspice berry was like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a mild pepper. Biting into a dry allspice berry produces a peppery sensation that first assails the tip of the tongue. This taste experience is followed by a pleasant warmth which bathes the lips and mouth. The allspice is native to Jamaica (which is the major exporter of the spice) and other parts of Tropical America. The tree is a member of the myrtle family. The glossy dark and light green aromatic leaves are openly spaced on branches which terminate in small bunches of white flowers. After blooming and pollination the flowers are formed into small green clusters of berries which later ripen to a purple color.  

The 30 foot tall trees once grew wild in the cool Jamaican mountains. Commercially grown allspice trees were later evenly laid out in orderly pimento “walks” (groves). For sun drying, mature green berries were harvested then spread out on large, flat concrete platforms called “barbecues”. The dry coca-brown colored berries were bagged in burlap sacks  and exported to processing plants where the allspice was then packaged whole or ground into a powder. [1] Essential oil  is also extracted from the allspice berry. The oil is commercially used in catsup, meat sauces, baked goods, in the reproduction of certain fruit flavors and as spice blends for pickles and sausages. In Jamaica a liqueur called pimento dram is made by steeping the ripe berries in overproof Jamaican rum with added cinnamon.

Allspice spice is used in the seasoning and making of Jamaican jerk pork, chicken or fish. To “jerk” meats is a Taino method of barbecuing (and preserving meat) over a slow fire. This Taino cooking technique was passed down to the present time through the Maroons of Jamaica. Eastern and western Maroons were skilled at hunting the Spanish-introduced wild pig and making jerk pork. The barbacu (a Taino word from which we get “barbecue”) built by Maroons is called a caban and is best constructed from green allspice branches (see barbecue). For years, before the commercialization of jerk chicken, the best jerk pork came from Portland, Jamaica.

The [2] validity of allspice as a healing herb has been confirmed by modern science. Allspice powder is used to make a tea which soothes indigestion. In Jamaica hot allspice tea is taken for colds, menstrual cramps and upset stomachs. For muscle aches and pains an allspice polstice made from the powder mixed with water into a paste and spread out on a clean cloth can be applied to the sore area. Persons with sensitive skin should avoid topical use of allspice since it may cause inflammation or a rash. In Guatemala crushed berries are applied to bruises, sore joints and achy muscles. Allspice, if used as a healing herb, has two sides to its effectiveness since it has both carcinogenic and cancer-fighting properties. On one hand, allspice contains a mild antioxidant which prevents cell damage that may eventually cause cancer. On the other hand, another active ingredient, eugenol, promotes cancer growth. The scientific jury has still not passed a verdict on which way the balance tips. [3] It is recommended that persons with a high risk for cancer should avoid the herb. A high concentration of the essential oil should never be swallowed since one teaspoon can cause nausea, vomiting and convulsions. As long as it is not swallowed a drop of the essential oil is used for its healing properties and when carefully applied lessens the pain of toothaches.  

*Recipe for Pimento Dram; 1 cup light rum; 1/4 cup whole allspice berries;1 cinnamon stick; 1 1/2 cup water; 2/3 cup brown sugar. Steeping ground berries in rum takes a few months.Go to

[1] "Allspice", Grolier Electronic Publishing
[2] Viable Herbal Solutions,
[3] ibid.