NEW YORK -- Jamaica used to be the best place in the world to buy spiced bread and peanut punch. These days that honor belongs to Brooklyn.

Shopping for a bottle of Matouks Special Hot Calypso Sauce or the latest 12-inch reggae record by Barrington Levy or Sugar Minot? Better head for Flatbush.

For anybody who has been to the Caribbean and central Brooklyn, it often seems that only the sharp winds of the northern winter provide a stinging reminder of which is which. Mangoes, yams and sugar cane are piled high in groceries throughout the neighborhood. Sea moss and goat are easier to find than sirloin or salads.

Last week, 1990 census figures revealed that New York was the only major northeastern city to gain population in the last decade, and nearly all of the growth has been from immigration. The Chinese population has surged in Queens, and the Russians have annexed Brighton Beach. Africans, Guatemalans and Colombians arrived nearly every day, bringing at least 1 million new Americans to New York during the 1980s.

But no growth has been as dramatic as that of the Caribbean community, and nowhere is it more evident than in Brooklyn, where storefronts carry the bold sign, "Ici on parle francais" -- French spoken here. The other most commonly used tongues are Spanish and Creole, the slangy amalgam of French and African languages favored by Haitians. English runs a distant fourth.

"All my friends have moved here," said Guerline Voltaire, 19, a shop assistant in a store that sells baby furniture. Her tale about leaving Haiti five years ago can be repeated by nearly every family in Flatbush. It is the story of New York, told first by Germans, then Russians and Irish and Italians.

"My father came first," she said slowly in English, a language she rarely uses, "then my brothers and me and my mother. My uncle is here. My other brother is coming."

The islanders settled on Flatbush largely because there is space and rents are cheap. Few want to stay, hoping like the millions who came before them to move to a better neighborhood, then a better one after that.

"They come here because somebody they know got here first," said Jean Alexander, director of the Caribbean American Center of New York, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants to navigate their way through the complexities of life in this forbidding city. "There are at least 1.5 million people from the islands in New York City now, possibly far more than that. Flatbush is the epicenter."

Census data show that more than 50,000 people moved into the 11226 zip code area, which roughly corresponds to Flatbush, during the last decade. Haitians made up the largest single group, but nearly as many came from Jamaica, followed by Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

Roman Catholic churches that once catered to the Irish now feature the Mass mostly in Creole. Each Labor Day, the community is the central focus of a West Indian festival that brings as many as 1 million visitors, said to be one of the largest such events in the world.

The new life has its burdens, though. Cold weather is one; a recession that bites hardest at the poorest is another. Jobs are scarce, pay badly and, for those without valid documents, nearly impossible to find. Crime has spread rapidly throughout the area, and so has tension, as native-born blacks often clash with the new arrivals.

"It's not so easy here," said Jennifer Wallace, who runs one of many Jamaican bakeries in the neighborhood. "We used to be open seven days a week. Then six. Sometimes now, it's five or four. These people are poor to begin with. Now it's worse. Nobody buys what they don't need."

Wallace, whose bakery has a jukebox filled with the bubbling beat of the I-Threes, Sister Nancy and Carlton Livingston singing his recent hit, "Wicked Runaway," has considered shifting from oxtail soups, roti and sorrel to more traditional fast food in an effort to woo people who are not Jamaican.

Like so many immigrants before them, the islanders stand poised, waiting for their chance to make a better life than they could have attained in the sun-drenched areas they left behind. If they can get any job, they will take it. If they can find two, that is even better.

On weekends, dance floors throughout the city, from the gleaming Reggae Lounge in Manhattan to the Tilden Ballroom in Flatbush and the Q Club in Queens, shake with the thunder of calypso music, reggae and ska.

"We got our problems, absolutely," said Billy Chesmine, 32, a Haitian immigrant who runs First Choice, a Brooklyn shoe store. "Times are tough. But we'll keep coming because it's better here than where we were. That much I guarantee."