The quirky name derives from this pepper’s resemblance to the traditional Scottish hat (or bonnet), the Tam O’ Shanter (they also look like monstrous strawberries to my eyes).
Also commonly called Hot Jamaican peppers, these world-renowned juicy Caribbean firecrackers exist in green, yellow, orange, white, brown, red and multi-toned varieties. We grow the red and the yellow. The best, in our humble opinion. Here’s the low-down on the two:
Hot Jamaican Red (a Scotch Bonnet)
I’m a firm believer that the environment – the locale – puts some of its character into what grows there. The Hot Jamaican Red chilli pepper, or Scotch Bonnet, suits its birthplace so well, I can’t help but picture the scene when I think of the chilli: reggae, smiling, people dancing, hot sun, bright colours, sizzling barbeques on the beach.
Hot Jamaican Reds are one of the most used – and most loved – chillies to date. They feature as staple ingredients in countless dishes worldwide, gracing many cuisines with their famous flavour and heat.
Let’s get to the Hot Jamaican Red’s flavour first – why they stand head and shoulders (well, pith and stalk) above most other peppers in the taste department. The Hot Jamaican chilli pepper is what gives the world-renowned Jerk Sauce its unique flavour, cherished across the Caribbean. In fact, dozens of prized Caribbean dishes, marinades and hot sauces are based on the Hot Jamaican’s gorgeous sweet and fiery tang. It’s the essential ingredient in Caribbean ‘mash’ and Escoveitch sauce, and makes ace pickles and garnishes.
Hot Jamaican Reds are sweeter, and usually hotter, than their more common, more savoury-tasting relative the Habanero, with which it’s often confused (a fellow member of the Capsicum chinense sub-species). Hot Jamaican Reds smack of tropical, fruity zest. Smoky apple, with very distinctive apricot and citrus undertones that add a great depth of flavour.
Hot Jamaican Reds are mostly used in West African, Grenadian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Barbadian, Guyanese, (…breathe…) Surinamese, Haitian and Caymanian cuisine, though they often show up in all sorts of recipes.
You’ll rarely find a Jamaican cooking without a bit of Hot Jamaican pepper in the mix – it’s certainly the chilli of choice in the Caribbean. But for most tourists and non-initiates, the strength of the Hot Jamaican Red’s bite comes as a shock. Which brings me to the heat. 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat units. That’s a no-messing, heavy-hitting, top-end capsaicin level right there. In case you’re unfamiliar with this way of measuring a chilli’s pungency, a Hot Jamaican Red is around ONE HUNDRED times as hot as an already feisty Jalapeño. So this bright beast is just the ticket if you’re looking for world-class taste, with a tidal wave of exhilarating spice roaring on a few seconds behind, to smack you about the chops. I’ll take some endorphins in my flavour sandwich, please.
Although the beloved Hot Jamaican Red’s history was traced back to Central and South America, conclusive evidence of ultimate origin and place of first cultivation is thin on the ground. As with all well-travelled and well-loved chilli peppers, Hot Jamaican Reds have amassed a collection of names as it passed through various avenues of the world. It has come to be known as the Scotch Bonnet, Bahamian, Bahama Mama, Jamaican Hot, Martinique, Boabs Bonnet, Scotty Bons, Bonney, and Caribbean Red Pepper. Yoikes. And that’s just in English-speaking areas.
In Guyana they call it – simply and to the point – Ball of Fire.
When people talk about “hot peppers” in the Caribbean, they are strictly referring to Scotch Bonnets – Hot Jamaican Reds or Yellows. Shops and supermarkets will display them as “hot pepper” or “big pepper”. They are truly cherished there and part of the culture.
In fact, the Hot Jamaican Red is so loved and valued, it was the first Caribbean chilli to be given a specific name and exported. In 1767 or perhaps even earlier, it was named Bonnet, or Goat Pepper. Chilli-gurus of the day reckoned the Hot Jamaican Red’s smell resembled that of “the odour of the he-goat.” Now, call me a plebeian but I always thought Hot Jamaican Reds had a lovely fruity and floral aroma, not the smell of “he-goats”. Maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know (note to self: must sniff more he-goats).
Hot Jamaican Reds thrive in almost any of Jamaica’s fourteen parishes, thanks to the area’s beautiful tropical climate, which fiery chillies love. But growers in Jamaica can’t keep up with global demand and many other horticulturists (enter yours truly) have jumped in to get this wonderful spice-fountain out there to those who want it.
But the Hot Jamaican Red’s winning taste and awesome clout are only two of the three tricks in its repertoire of awesome skills. The third is what it can do for our health. Hot Jamaican Reds and other chilli peppers stimulate the metabolism. They fight cancer. They help diabetics. Hot Jamaican Reds are vitamin-rich and contain immune-boosting antioxidants. They reduce cholesterol… click on the Benefits of Peppers header of our website for the comprehensive rundown of the amazing and reassuring things chillies can do for us mere mortals.
Hot Jamaican Yellow (a Scotch Bonnet)
The yellow variety is a little harder to find than the red.
Hot Jamaican Yellows have the same resemblance to the ridiculous (sorry – did I say that out loud? I meant beautiful and traditional) giant floppy Scottish caps, the same fantastic health benefits as the Hot Jamaican Reds, the same enlivening, blazing famous heat. But some say the Hot Jamaican Yellows have an even fruitier flavour than the Reds.
Incidentally, for those who share my enthusiasm for inspired artistry in the kitchen (or “making a mess” as my lady calls it), particularly for recreating the charismatic colour and vibe of Caribbean flavour, the almighty Jerk seasoning that Hot Jamaican peppers seem to have been born for, contains two principle ingredients.
Allspice, also called pimento in Jamaica, and of course a good sliver of a Hot Jamaican Red or Yellow. To get your rub spot on, add to that: cloves, cinnamon, spring onions, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. And salt if you must. You’re set for a Jamaican Sun-downer in your back yard.