Drive around Jamaica and you’ll whizz by food stalls at the roadside, small stands with fish roasting on grill grates and stock pots brimming with soup roiling over open flames. If you're on one of these drives, and if your eyes catch a vendor with small clear bags stuffed with bright red shrimp, you should slow down and try some.
Pepper shrimp is a street food born in Middle Quarters, a village in the Parish of St. Elizabeth, tucked next to Black River, where the shrimp are caught. The shrimp are frequently referred to as crayfish, though there are two different species fished from the Black River, one a native freshwater shrimp and the other an invasive crayfish. Plucked from the river in bamboo traps, a tool and method of catching freshwater shrimp believed to have been brought to the island by enslaved West Africans some 300 years ago, the river shrimp are small with tender shells, and you can eat them whole. But because of fluctuations in supply due to the effects of weather, season, and demand, they are used interchangeably with saltwater shrimp; it's not uncommon to see vendors selling both river and ocean shrimp side by side, for the customer to choose.
Their distinctive bright red color is both an advertisement and a warning: these shrimp are hot. For those who want to make pepper shrimp at home, the vivid color can be the hardest element to replicate, since it's produced by a combination of the cooked shells, the intense number of crushed Scotch bonnet peppers, and, often, a dose of red food coloring. While there's no harm in using food coloring to make pepper shrimp, I wanted to find another, less artificial ingredient that could stain my shrimp red, ideally while also paying homage to Jamaica's culinary past.
That led me to annatto, which is also known as achiote. Annatto trees, from the bark to the seeds, were used to color fabrics and skin various shades of red and orange by the indigenous Taino peoples of Jamaica; it has also long been used as food coloring for yellow cheeses, and sometimes by little girls who want to wear "lipstick." When Spanish colonizers arrived on Jamaican shores, the annatto tree was so pervasive in the St. Mary port, they renamed the location from Guayguata, its indigenous Taino name, to Annotto Bay ("annotto" is a variant spelling of annatto). Today, annatto is widely available in seed, paste, powder, and oil form, and while it has a subtle earthy and smoky flavor, it's primarily used for its color.
In this recipe I use annatto powder and, optionally, annatto seed oil, allowing the shrimp to marinate in the mixture to absorb some of that signature tint. I've also scaled back on the heat level you'd likely find in pepper shrimp sold in Jamaica, but it's still spicy. That said, you have lots of control over the intensity of the chile heat: Chopping the peppers more finely and including their seeds will deliver the hottest shrimp (as would increasing the total number of Scotch bonnets in the recipe), while removing the seeds, or even leaving the peppers whole, lowers the heat even more. No matter what you do, be sure to wear gloves when cutting the peppers or a mindless rub of the eyes a little later will leave you in excruciating pain.
If you can’t find Scotch bonnets, you can use a tablespoon of bottled Scotch bonnet pepper sauce as a substitute, or you can search for the ripest habaneros you can find; however, habaneros have a zippier, more direct heat than the sweet, slow-building Scotch bonnets, so you may not want to use as many.
Why It Works
- Annatto powder and (optionally) annatto seed oil deepen the shrimp's signature red color.
- Altering the way in which you prepare the Scotch bonnet peppers changes the levels of spiciness in the final dish.
- Yield:Serves 4 as an appetizer or snack
- Active time: 30 minutes
- Total time:1 hour
- 3 Scotch bonnet chile peppers (about 3/4 ounce; 20g)
- 1 pound (455g) large shell-on shrimp, preferably head-on, rinsed
- Half of 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely diced
- Half of 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, finely diced
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) annatto oil or neutral oil such as vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight, plus more if needed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) annatto (achiote) powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) water
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) distilled white vinegar
- 6 allspice berries
Wearing latex gloves, prepare Scotch bonnet peppers; preparation will depend on your heat tolerance. For very spicy heat, stem and chop or slice peppers, keeping seeds and white pith; for medium heat, stem and seed peppers, then chop or slice; for mild heat, leave peppers whole, including stems.
In a medium bowl, add shrimp with Scotch bonnets, bell pepper, onion, thyme, garlic, annatto oil (or neutral oil), salt, annatto powder, garlic powder, and onion powder. Stir to combine well. Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Using a gloved hand, scrape aromatic vegetables and herbs off shrimp and set shrimp aside in a clean bowl. Add water to vegetable marinade, then pour mixture into a stainless-steel skillet large enough to hold shrimp in a single layer.
Bring to a simmer over medium heat, add allspice berries, then cover and cook at a simmer for 15 minutes.
Add vinegar, turn heat to medium-low, and add shrimp to the skillet in a single layer. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.
Turn off heat, uncover, and stir until shrimp are just cooked through and no longer translucent, about 2 minutes longer. Season with additional salt, if desired.
Transfer shrimp to a serving plate and let cool slightly. Discard cooking liquid and vegetables. Serve shrimp warm or at room temperature, peeling them at the table.