The Dominican Cook’s Spice Rack

Each cuisine has its own distinctive combination of spices that gives it its signature flavor. So, what’s in (or should be) in the Dominican cook’s pantry?

I once found yuca (cassava) in a visit to Denmark and decided to treat our family to the delicious arepitas de yuca. But lo and behold, the joy was short-lived because I could not find aniseed anywhere in the small town we were visiting. Despite my husband’s encouragement, and his insisting that he could not taste the difference, the arepitas were not the same without aniseed.

Each cuisine has its own distinctive combination of spices that gives it its signature flavor. The Dominican gastronomy is no different. So, what’s in (or should be) in the Dominican cook’s pantry? Let’s see:

Bija, Anato, Annato

Annato (bija, anato, achiote)
It’s used mostly for coloring foods and as a healthier, more natural substitute to tomato paste. I prefer using bija in pescado con coco. You can buy it powdered, or, as I prefer, do it yourself in your handy pilon.


It is used for seasoning meats and stews. It’s essential in chivo liniero. Typically Dominicans prefer to buy sun-dried whole leaves and powder it during preparation. I am lucky I get mine imported straight from the Dominican oregano capital: Montecristi.

Allspice - Malagueta

Allspice (malagueta)
This dry berry is used in the preparation of soups. Its nutty flavor enhances a good sopa boba, a hearty sopa de hueso, and the delicious aguají.

Clavo (cloves)

Clavo (cloves)
This spicy-sweet ingredient is vital in the preparation of many Dominican desserts. Dominicans buy them whole and leave them in the dish. I may be alone on this, but I love the tongue-numbing spiciness of biting into a piece of clove when I eat my arroz con leche or my pan de batata.

Anís (aniseed)

Aniseed (Anis)
As mentioned before, aniseed is mainly used in arepitas (yuca or cornmeal). It has a very distinctive flavor and I just cannot grasp the concept of a good arepita without a generous amount of aniseed.

Nuez Moscada (nutmeg)

Nutmeg (Nuez Moscada)
Used in various desserts and beverages (such as chocolate de agua). Also added to Dominican espresso in some households.

Canela (cinnamon)

Canela (cinnamon)
Like cloves, cinnamon is essential in preparing Dominican desserts. It is used in té de jengibre, habichuelas con dulces and other dishes. Buy them as sticks. A bit of powdered cinnamon also enhances a good dish of majarete.

Sal en grano (sea salt)

Sal en grano (sea salt)
It is widely recognized that sea salt has a different taste than rock salt. Luckily for Dominicans sea salt is cheap and easily available here.

Many other spices are used in our cuisine, these are merely the best-known ones. Spices are also used for infusions, drinks and teas. Let us know which of these are your favorite.

Aunt Clara


  1. Silkies

    Clara, I hang around a lot of older Dominican ladies just watching and learning.. As soon as they start taking pots and pans out I’m THERE. :-) as a result I am one of the best cooks I know! I cook for parties, for my own household.. I stumbled on this site looking for a recipe on Sancocho and I love how authentic ALL your recipes are to what I have learned from my many days listening to the ladies tell stories and drink coffee. I love this site!

  2. Francesca

    I live in Brooklyn where I can find all these spices. For now, except for cinnamon sticks which I do have, all my spices are the ground version, which I can get at Sahadi's on Atlantic Ave. Because our family has a very tight budget right now (I'm working but haven't seen a paycheck in over 2 months), I'm going to have to wait to get the whole spices. My question therefore is, will ground spices work in a pinch?

    Thank you.

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