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.