By Dominican spices, we mean spices traditionally used in Dominican cookery, and not necessarily grown in the country. Each cuisine has its distinctive combination of spices that gives it its signature flavor; these are the must-have spices in the Dominican cook’s pantry.
By- Last reviewed . Published Mar 3, 2011
Spices used in the Dominican Republic
While in Denmark, I once found yuca (cassava) 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 insisting that he could not taste the difference, the arepitas were not the same without aniseed. It just shows you the importance of spices in some dishes.
Each cuisine has its distinctive combination of spices, and Dominican gastronomy is no different. So, what’s in (or should be) the Dominican cook’s pantry? Let’s see:
Bija (Bixa orellana)
This is an orange-red condiment and food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree. It is also called by local names such as achiote, bija, roucou (French Guyana), koesoewe or kusuwe (Suriname), onoto (Venezuela), atsuete (Philippines), or colorau (Brazil). In English, it is known as annatto.
Dominican cuisine uses it primarily for coloring foods and as a healthier, more natural substitute for tomato paste. It has a very mild flavor and does not affect the flavor of foods significantly. I use bija in Pescado con coco, Locrio de longaniza, Pasteles en hoja, Pasteles de yuca en hoja, Telera bread, Pechugas de pollo a la plancha, Arroz con camarones, and more.
You can buy it powdered, or, as I prefer, crush it into powder in a spice grinder, or extract the color by cooking in oil over very low heat to make Achiote oil.
Malagueta (Pimenta dioica)
Known in English mainly as allspice, it is also called Jamaica pepper, pepper, myrtle pepper, pimenta, Turkish Yenibahar, English pepper or newspice, it is the dried berry of a tree native to the Greater Antilles, southern Mexico, and Central America.
The name 'allspice' was coined as early as 1621 by the English, who thought it tasted like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.
Pimienta (Piper nigrum)
Pepper is a spice obtained from the dried fruit of a flowering vine native to India. It has been used and traded as a spice for millennia and is used practically everywhere these days.
The different colors of peppercorns are due to different processing methods or degrees of ripeness of the berries.
In Dominican cookery, it is used as a general seasoning agent, and since in our blog we avoid using processed seasoning and bouillon cubes, it is part of many of our savory Dominican recipes.
Clavo (Syzygium aromaticum)
Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.
This spicy-sweet ingredient is vital in the preparation of many Dominican desserts. Dominicans buy them whole and leave them in the dish.
Anis (Pimpinella anisum)
Anise, also called aniseed, is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. Its flavor resembles that of star anise, fennel, and licorice.
It has a very distinctive flavor, and I cannot grasp the concept of a good arepita without a generous amount of aniseed.
Nuez Moscada (Myristica fragrant)
Nutmeg, as is known in English, is the seed of a tree indigenous to the Spice Islands of Indonesia.
It is also added to Dominican coffee in some households.
Canela (Cinnamomum verum)
Cinnamon is the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum. While Cinnamomum verum is sometimes considered to be "true cinnamon", most cinnamon available commercially derives from related species.
Like cloves, cinnamon is essential in preparing Dominican desserts.
Sal en Grano
Sea salt is widely used in our cuisine; it is cheap and readily available here – and produced in my hometown of Montecristi!
While in the past, pure sea salt was commonly used in our homes, nowadays, iodized salt is preferred to prevent iodine deficiency and thyroid problems.
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 is your favorite.
To learn more about what gives our dishes their signature flavor, read our article on the herbs used in Dominican cooking.