Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Spices and herbs, Part 6: Eng. allspice & Sp. pimienta de Jamaica

[This entry is an excerpt from the chapter "Spices, herbs, and other condiments" of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Go to the listing of entries on spices, herbs and other condiments

Eng. allspice and Sp. pimienta de Jamaica or pimienta inglesa

Allspice [ˈɔɫ.spaɪ̯s] is the name of the dried, unripe berry of an aromatic, tropical American evergreen tree, 30-60 feet in height, that is crushed and used as a spice. The Spanish found this spice on Columbus’s second trip and brought it back to Europe. The berry comes from a tree of the same name. The spice goes by other names as well, such as Jamaica pepper, myrtle pepper, or newspice, among others. This spice is known in Spanish as pimienta de Jamaica, pimienta inglesa, pimienta dulce, guayabitas (Venezuela), and pimienta (de) chapa (Peru), among other names. Some dictionaries give malagueta as a Spanish equivalent of allspice, but that is a different plant, one whose botanical name is Amomum malagueta.

The allspice plant is an herbaceous one whose seeds are similar to large (black) peppercorns, which explains why the Spanish call it pimienta (see explanation below). Actually, originally, in 1494, when the Spanish first found this spice, it seems they thought they were peppercorns. As for the origin of the name allspice, it was coined in the early 17th century by the English, who conquered Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The English name, a combination of the words all and spice, came from the fact that its flavor reminded people of a combination of several spices, in particular cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper (OED). The earliest reference to this spice, from 1621, has the name written as a phrase: all spice. This spice has been used to flavor all kinds of foods, such as pickling mixes, ketchup, sausage, and meatballs, and to salt beef, cure fish, and flavor cakes, cookies, and puddings.

The botanical name of the allspice plant is Pimenta dioica (originally, Myrtus dioica). The first part of the botanical name, Pimenta, is the genus name, which comes from Late Latin pigmenta (see below). It refers to ‘a genus of tropical American aromatic trees of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) having large leaves and small flowers’ (MW). The myrtle family, which has almost 6,000 species, grouped in some 132 genera, contains other well-known species, such as myrtle, bay rum tree, clove, guava, acca (feijoa), and eucalyptus. The allspice plant, Pimenta dioica, is native to the Caribbean, southern Mexico, and Central America, though it is now grown elsewhere as well. It takes close to 6,000 berries to make a pound of ground allspice.

Figure 162: Allspice plant and whole berries.[i]

Allspice has many different uses in different culinary traditions. It is a very important ingredient in some types of Caribbean cuisine, in particular from the Anglophone Caribbean, which has become very popular in places such as England in recent years. This Caribbean cuisine is a fusion of African, Amerindian, European, East Indian, Chinese, and other traditions. In the United States, this spice is used mostly in desserts. In Mexico, it is used to make some mole sauces and in Venezuela, to make local desserts, for example, among many other uses.

[i] Sources: “Pimenta dioica - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-239” by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen - List of Koehler Images. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; and “AllspiceBowl” by Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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