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Let's Talk About Spice

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

We've been doing a lot of food and wine pairing together, primarily pairing Caribbean food and wine. To many, this concept is strange, especially when they hear me talk about spice in the food. I think the challenge is that spice has gotten a bad rap and is believed to be synonymous with heat; heat that you get from things such as:

  • Scotch Bonnet Pepper

  • Ghost Pepper

  • Habanero Pepper

  • Etc

...and that is not the spice I am talking about here, and truthfully not spice in its true form at all.

While researching hot (heated) peppers from different parts of the world, many articles used the word 'spice' or the descriptor 'spicy' to describe the peppers above, which is wildly misleading. Peppers such as these give off heat in your food and not spice, as the spice used to flavour your food.

Though it can be argued that the capsaicin in these peppers provides flavour, the ratio of heat to flavour, in hot pepper, do not land in balance on the palate. I argue that if I were to season your meat solely using scotch bonnet pepper, the only thing you would detect is that your mouth was on fire, and not flavour. Whereas, if I seasoned your meat solely using something on the list of spices below, you'd have a different experience. I am not saying it will taste great, but you will be able to 'taste' and envelop flavours on the palate. Spice adds flavour to enhance the edibility of your meal. It's not meant to mimic an inferno in your mouth.

I even take incident with the Merriam-Webster definition of spice, which reads:

any of various aromatic vegetable products (such as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods

Where did we, the general populous, go wrong?

While I am not sure if Merriam's was referring to black pepper or Scotch Bonnet pepper, the ambiguity is an issue in the lexicon that we, with roots in countries where spices are grown and cultivated, innately utilize. The ambiguity and having one group of people set the vocabulary around food in North America and Europe have led to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Going down the fact find path for this rant, I found 552,000,000 search items that referenced hot peppers as a spice and or used the descriptor 'spicy' to talk about them. From just this one search exercise, I can see why some people look at me with one raised brow when I speak about pairing Caribbean food and wine.

Regardless of history, the differentiation of spice versus hot pepper must be acknowledged in the world of food and wine pairing. In essence, this really is one representative equation of the European Age of Discovery (The Spice Route and Trade / the advent of the age of modern colonization), which requires more profound thought as its concepts bleed into today's institutions.

West Indian's use spice when cooking for flavour. It is common to see our meats seasoned for at least 24-hours before cooking to ensure flavour through and through. The spices I am referring to are things like:

  • Black Pepper

  • Cumin

  • Masala

  • Allspice

  • Clove

  • Ginger

  • Paprika

  • Nutmeg

  • Etc

All of the above are elements that we've picked up in one wine or the other, while not all at the same time, but I for sure do not have enough fingers to count the number of times clove, nutmeg, or allspice was used in a globally recognized wine tasting note. With these parallels in food and wine flavour, it becomes easier to see why many West Indian foods have many fantastic wine pairings.

Spice, as we use it, and know it, brings out elements in the food and in the wine. So, the next time you contemplate pairing wine with your curry or oxtail, have at it! Take this article into consideration and start to change vocabulary and understanding. Perhaps the more of us that start to clarify the use of the word 'spice' or descriptor 'spicy', the easier the total comprehension of food and wine pairing for all cuisines.


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