The fiery rivalry of Caribbean hot sauce
Hot sauces from the Caribbean Specialty Foods Co line the shelves of a Trinidadian grocer. (Trinidad and Tobago Tourism)
Don’t be fooled by the laid-back attitudes found in many of the Caribbean’s sleepy beach towns -- it’s a competitive place. From rum to cricket to carnival costumes, each country claims superiority in a variety of areas.
Island-to-island rivalry for the Caribbean’s best hot sauce is similarly heated, and the diversity of the condiment, often called “pepper sauce”, ranges from a chutney-like mash to smooth, liquid fire, depending on each island’s tastes and traditions.
But no matter what your temperature threshold, this guide to the region's spicy goodness will keep you from getting burned.
Like the Oaxaca region in Mexico or Italy’s mortadella mecca Emilia Romagna, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago arguably hold the Caribbean’s gastronomic grail. Culinary claims to fame include six consecutive wins at the annual Taste of the Caribbean cooking competition, plus the islands are home to the indigenous moruga scorpion pepper, named the world’s hottest by New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in 2012.
The islands’ vinegar-driven, mustard-spiked pepper sauce -- made with incendiary local peppers like moruga red, bejeucal, West Indies red and the superlative moruga scorpion – pairs perfectly with hearty island specialties like bake and shark, a sandwich that serves up deep-fried shark filets on a freshly baked round roll, or callaloo, a stew of leafy greens and coconut milk. Commercial brand Matouk’s is available at grocery stores across the islands, but in general, locals’ home-bottled pepper sauces reign supreme. Some of Trinidad’s hottest home brews can be found at the roving monthly culinary market UpMarket, or the weekly farmers’ markets in the Trinidadian towns of Port of Spain and Rousillac.
St Kitts and Nevis, another top Caribbean culinary destination, produces what might be the region’s best commercial brand: Mrs Greaux Hot Pepper Sauce. Only 2,500 bottles of the addictive blend of local West Indian red peppers and curry leaves are produced each year, so savvy shoppers often grab several at Nevis’s outdoor City Market, near the ferry dock in the capital Charlestown, or at grocery stores across both islands.
In Jamaica, hot sauces need little more than garlic, vinegar and native scotch bonnet peppers to achieve their heady, heated tang and vibrant red, orange or green hue. Look for the delicious fiery blends in everything from mason jars to repurposed water bottles at the recently expanded Negril Farmer’s Market, now selling products from 35 nearby farms.
Pepper sauces in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) are typically spiked with mustard, giving them a sharp bite and a trademark yellow colour. And on Tortola, the largest island in the BVI, the best can be found at the spice shop Sunny Caribee in the capital city of Road Town. Erica’s, a commercial brand sold at grocery stores throughout St Vincent and the Grenadines, gets its red-orange tint and bright, citrusy flavour from locally grown habaneros. And on St Croix, beloved brand Miss Anna’s is sold in five varieties, from Classic Caribbean to Garlic Habanero, in almost every island convenience store. All Miss Anna’s bottles use West Indian curry leaves for a smoky kick.
A good rule of thumb on any island though, is to buy local. Look for bespoke blends in old mayonnaise jars or, better still, ones labelled as someone’s Auntie’s secret recipe. Rivalries aside, when it comes to pepper sauce, everyone is family.