Allspice is one of Jamaica's signature flavors, a homegrown spice that's widely used in jerk seasoning and other traditional dishes. Interestingly, the allspice tree -- known as pimento wood in its home country -- is also an important flavoring ingredient. Jamaican cooks cut the wood into chips and spread dampened pieces over the charcoal in their grill. The chips lend a distinct flavor to authentic Jamaican jerked meats, one that has no direct substitute.
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Necessity of Substitution
Most of the world's allspice trees grow in Jamaica, though a few other Caribbean countries have modest plots. According to researchers at the University of the West Indies, attempts to cultivate allspice trees on other continents failed due to low productivity. That geographic rarity, combined with the trees' high market value as producers of allspice, means the wood is in short supply outside of its homeland. If you live in an area with a large Caribbean population you might see it occasionally in ethnic shops. Otherwise, you'll need to improvise.
Fruit Wood Chips
The best alternatives to pimento wood are often fruit woods, which are similarly mild but pungent. Apple wood chips are an easy option. They're affordable and readily available in most parts of the country. Feel free to experiment with other fruit wood chips, to see if there's an alternative that plays especially well with your personal jerk seasoning. Pear, peach, cherry and other fruit woods -- whatever grows in your region -- all yield subtle, savory flavors.
Pecan Wood Chips
Pecan chips also make a fine option, when pimento wood isn't available. Pecan tends to be somewhat costlier than fruit woods, since -- like pimento wood -- it grows in a limited geographic region. If you live in the South you might have the luxury of harvesting pecan wood from your own backyard or local groves, but pecan chips are also available nationally through barbecue-oriented retailers. Pecan adds a slightly nuttier flavor than most fruit woods, bringing out the brighter notes in your jerk seasoning.
If you don't have ready access to pecan or fruit woods, try to find chips of mellow-flavored woods such as alder or even birch. Some of the most popular woods for smoking, including hickory, oak and mesquite, are far too pungent to use with jerk chicken or other authentic recipes. They'll overpower the spicy flavors, even when blended with less potent woods. Rather than use these heavyweights, skip the wood chips entirely. Your dish will taste better with pure charcoal smoking than with any of these added.