Allspice / Jamaica Pepper

Profoundly aromatic, the small, brownish, seedlike fruits, more commonly known as berries, of the allspice tree (Pimenta dioica) offer a sharp piquancy followed by notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg—a heady mix that some Americans recognize as pumpkin pie spice. The clovelike fragrance and flavor arise from the presence of eugenol, methyl eugenol, and beta-caryophyllene, three key chemical compounds present in the essential oil of the berries. Although ground all-spice has become the most widely used form of the spice, the foliage and wood of P. dioica are still used throughout the tree’s Caribbean area of origin. The leaves, which are employed in marinades and in the stuffings for meats, carry far less of the clovelike flavor than the berries do. Wood pruned from the trees is used as fragrant fuel for traditional barbecues.

In the Mayan lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, allspice, chiles, and vanilla regularly flavored ritually consumed chocolate beverages. When I have had he opportunity to drink Mayan-style unsweetened chocolate drinks that include allspice, I have been struck by how well the two flavors complement one another, perhaps more so than even chocolate and vanilla.

Allspice was first noted by Columbus on his second voyage to the West Indies, but it didn’t catch hold in Europe until the seventeenth century. It appears that Sephardic Jewish refugees living in Santiago de la Vega (Spanish Town) and Port Royal in Jamaica shipped allspice to other Jewish traders residing in Old World ports, such as Constantinople, Venice, Genoa, Amsterdam, and London. When it arrived in London, the English named it newspice and became its most fanatic consumers in the Old World, using it in pickling brines for vegetables and other flavoring stews. Because the bulk of its commercial production continued to come out of Jamaica, allspice became known as Jamaica pepper in many of its new destinations. It also grows on other West Indian islands, including Cuba and Barbados.

The natural range of allspice extends over to the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala and then southward into Central and South America, where I have witnessed robust trees fifteen to twenty feet tall. The Yucatecan allspice berries that I have sampled have an altogether different flavor complex from Jamaican berries, though they are in no way inferior to the island’s harvests. Within the tropical and arid subtropical climes of Mexico, allspice has been known as pimiento gorda or pimiento de Tabasco and traditionally traded throughout the country. The latter name may in fact be the origin of the term Tabasco pepper, which was introduced to the United States around the time of the Civil War by a Confederate soldier who mistakenly applied it to a particular chile.

In Jamaican jerk pastes and rubs for meats, allspice is the key ingredient that complements black pepper, chiles, cinnamon, garlic, lime juice, and vinegar. It appears that Arabic-speaking moriscos and conversos in Mexico and the Caribbean may have also been involved in the allspice trade, since it became one more kind of “pepper” on the Old World trade routes. In fact, the majority of language groups to which allspice was introduced initially described it as just that: one more kind of pepper (piment, piperi, pjerets, pepe, Pfeffer), with allusions to it being a sweet pepper in its Arabic (filfil infranji halu), Mandarin Chinese (ganjiao), and Cantonese Chinese (gam jiu) names. The Berbers in Algeria call it fulful mexik, or “Mexican pepper,” suggesting that it may have entered the Maghreb through early Mexican exports to Andalusia and Morocco. Bulgarians and Georgians simply treat it as one more Turkish- or Arab-introduced spice (bahar) suitable for adding to spice mixes such as baharat and ras el hanout.

Bengali and Hindi cooks view allspice as a spice-rub ingredient for Chinese kebabs (kabab chini) that was originally accessed through Silk Road trade with Muslims from western China. It is also used by my cousins in Lebanon in their rubs and marinades for various kebab, kibbe, and kefta preparations. In fact, in much of the Middle East, allspice from the New World is now so completely integrated into the local cuisines that it is easy to presume that it is native to the region. Today it is also present in ketchups, meat marinades, pickles, rum cocktails, and spice cakes around the world. 

Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philaelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” Accessed May 4, 2013.
Sortun, Ana, with Nicole Chaison. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: Regan Books, 2006.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press