Make delicious Caribbean seafood curry the right way with Jamaican curry powder

A Caribbean seafood curry is the perfect match of earthy spice, creamy sauce and delicate seafood. But what’s different about a Caribbean curry that makes it work so well?

To understand what makes a Caribbean curry tick, I reviewed 16 recipes for Caribbean seafood curry. They were a mixture of Trinidad kingfish curry, Jamaican fish curry, Caribbean shrimp curry and more.

A Caribbean vista of palm trees along a beach.

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Caribbean curry

Cuisines like Indian and Thai have many different types of curries (and here I am conveniently ignoring the fact that Indians do not use curry powder, or even have “curry”). Google “Indian curry recipe” and you’ll get more varieties than you can count.

When you go looking for a Caribbean seafood curry recipe, you typically find one of two types – Jamaican curry recipes and Trinidad curry recipes. And then there are many generic “Caribbean” curries. When you look closer at these different types they are all very similar, based on largely the same core ingredients.

What’s in a Caribbean curry?

There are several consistent ingredients amongst these recipes:

  • Every recipe includes one or more aromatic ingredients. Onions, scallions (green onions) or both are the most common, closely followed by garlic. Ginger appears as well, but only in a few recipes.
  • Most of them include some type of tomato, either fresh, canned or paste. And a couple use ketchup.
  • Most of the recipes include some type of chili pepper. Scotch bonnet is the most common here, the signature pepper of Caribbean cuisine (and others). Be aware this is a very hot pepper, measuring 100,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville heat unit scale. For comparison, a jalapeno is only about 3,500 to 5,000 SHU!
  • Most of the recipes are for a creamy curry, including some quantity of coconut milk. This is one area the Trinidad curry recipes are consistently different. None of them include coconut milk.
  • Bell peppers (capsicum) are very common, used by 10 of the 16 authors.
  • Herbs are also common, and thyme is overwhelmingly the preferred choice. A couple of the Trinidad recipes also use shado beni (culantro), which is a bit like a stronger cilantro (coriander).
  • A few of the authors include some lime juice.

And almost every recipe includes curry powder. Several authors point out that it’s not really a Caribbean seafood curry without Jamaican curry powder.

Ground turmeric on a spoon next to several pieces of fresh turmeric.

Jamaican curry powder

Jamaican curry powder is available commercially under several different brands. But are they really different from other curry powders, or is it just a marketing gimmick?

When I reviewed Malaysian chicken curry, I compared several popular brands of Malaysian curry powder with “Indian” curry powder. Labelling laws require manufacturers to list ingredients in order of volume, from most to least in the product. This allows you to get a fairly good sense of how the various curry powders are made up.

So I did the same comparison with Jamaican curry powders. I compared four different commercially-available brands (linked to the product on Amazon if you’re interested):

All four are very similar. And when compared with a traditional Indian curry powder (like Sun Brand or Rani), there are a few meaningful differences. The Jamaican powders consistently contain:

  • More turmeric. In fact for all four brands turmeric is the number one ingredient.
  • More fenugreek, the sweet nutty seed with hints of maple.
  • Less red pepper (chilli), making them milder.
  • No fennel seed, cinnamon or mustard seed.

The turmeric-heavy mix is characteristic of a bright yellow Caribbean seafood curry. Turmeric is also milder in taste than spices like cumin, making Jamaican curry powder well suited to seafood.

The rest of the ingredients in a Jamaican curry powder are present in relatively similar ratios to an Indian curry powder:

  • Cumin
  • Black pepper
  • Allspice
  • Garlic
  • Ginger

In spite of these similarities, you can see there are some important differences that will impact the taste of your curry. Using a typical Indian curry powder will still give you a seafood curry, but it will be quite different from a Jamaican curry.

Homemade Jamaican curry powder

If you can’t find it in the store, a few of the authors provide recipes either as part of the seafood curry recipe or elsewhere on their websites:

  • Immaculate Bites has a separate recipe for Jamaican curry powder. Imma’s is a little different to the four brands due to the inclusion of mustard seed and nutmeg, and it’s more cumin-heavy as well. Otherwise it matches the brands fairly closely.
  • That Girl Cooks Healthy also has a separate recipe for Jamaican curry powder. Charla’s is very similar to Imma’s, again including mustard seeds and nutmeg, but also cinnamon. It’s also cumin-heavy compared to the commercial products, but is otherwise very similar.
  • Chef Lippe uses a homemade mix in their curry recipe which is quite different from the brands and the other authors. It excludes several spices, in particular fenugreek and allspice, and has much more cumin and black pepper than the brands.

So you’ve got plenty of choice if you can’t find an off-the-shelf product.

Regular curry powder shortcut

If you really don’t want to make your own powder from scratch, or you don’t have everything you need, there’s a shortcut you can take that will at least get you closer to the real thing.

As we’ve seen, Jamaican curry powder is turmeric dominant. So to try to match this, you can add turmeric together with a regular Indian curry powder.

Lauren from Climbing Grier Mountain does this for her Jamaican crab meat curry. She also adds some allspice, which is in most commercial Jamaican curry powders but generally not found in Indian curry powders.

This approach still won’t be the same as the real thing because of spices like mustard seed, cinnamon and fennel seed in the Indian curry powders, but it will get you a lot closer.

Closeup of a large pile of raw shrimp.

A word on seafood

From the 16 recipes I reviewed, seven use shrimp, six use fish, one uses crab meat and two use a mixture of different seafood.

That’s one of the great things about this style of curry. It really suits almost any seafood you prefer.

The only stipulation a couple of authors make is to use firm fish so it doesn’t fall apart.

Otherwise, take your pick! Whether you make a Jamaican fish curry, a Trinidad mussel curry or a Caribbean shrimp curry is totally up to you. And if you can’t decide, go all out and make a mixed Caribbean seafood curry.

The essence of a Caribbean seafood curry

The foundations of a Caribbean seafood curry are typically:

  • Jamaican curry powder.
  • Onions and garlic.
  • Some type of tomato.
  • Some type of chili pepper and the scotch bonnet is the authentic choice.
  • Coconut milk (unless you want a Trinidad-style curry).
  • Bell peppers (capsicum).
  • Thyme.

And for the seafood, shrimp and fish are the most popular choices, but almost any type of seafood can work.

Go with Jamaican curry powder

The word “curry” is often used in a very generic sense, which could lead you to believe that all curries (and curry powders) are the same. And that therefore it’s okay to grab any old curry powder for the recipe you want to try.

While you won’t “break” a recipe doing this, you’ll be missing out on the true flavour of that particular style of curry. As you can see from this review, like I also explored in my review of Malaysian chicken curry, the curries of different cuisines have important differences in the foundational flavour ingredient – the curry powder. And while many are similar, the differences open up an enormous variety of flavours that it would be a shame to ignore.

So try to find a good quality Jamaican curry powder, or make one from scratch. Then you’ll enjoy the curry the way it’s meant to be.

And if you can find (and handle the heat of) a scotch bonnet pepper, you’ll be even closer to the real thing.

Recipes included in this review

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