Across Jamaica, bellowing smoking pits and portable grills heavily scent the air with the delicious aroma of spiced meats. This can mean only one thing – jerk. From street food vendors to upmarket restaurants, jerk is an important aspect of Jamaican life and one of the most recognisable Jamaican exports. Jerk-pits across the island have their own traditional and often secret proprietary jerk recipes. Most contain a combination of thyme, fresh ginger, scallions, scotch bonnet and pimento. Chicken remains the most popular jerked meat with pork a close second. However, anything can be jerked including fish and even conch. Dry rubbed or marinated it is then slow-smoked in a jerk pit for up to three hours over pimento wood. Culture Trip sets foot on the Jamaican spice trail in search of all there is to know about jerk cooking, Jamaica’s greatest culinary export.
In the 1700s, whilst fleeing capture from the British army in the Blue Mountains, the Maroons developed jerk seasoning as a method of meat preservation. With food scarce, the Maroons developed a technique in which meat was spiced and wrapped in banana leaves. When it was ready to be eaten the spiced meat would be cooked over hot rocks or barbecued over wood. Over the years other cultures have added their influence to this national dish, including Asian immigrants and even European colonisers.
Nowadays, meat is scored, then marinated or dry rubbed with a spicy blend of pimento, garlic, escallions, vinegar and, of course, scotch bonnet pepper. It is then kept from the direct flames of the fire using pimento wood. Getting the right amount of charring on the outside and locking the juices on the inside is essential. The jerked meat is then covered with metal sheets to let the smoke do its thing. It is important to note that this isn’t simply a barbecue, it is a smoking process using sweetwood and thus it requires skill and patience. Jerk pits and restaurants survive on their reputation, and even the smallest, portable one-man operation can have a city-wide reputation that draws queues of hungry customers.
Jamaican food offers a real eclectic mix of cultures and people and its combined history has created some of the most exciting and best tasting food in the Caribbean. But if you can’t wait until your next Caribbean vacation to eat some jerk, making authentic Jamaican jerk at home isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Vendors in Jamaica and across the Caribbean prefer dry rubbing and slow smoking over sweetwood, but let’s face it, not everyone has the time or the equipment to do that at home. It is still perfectly possible to create good jerk food at home though. Those who are really pressed for time could try a jerk seasoning from a jar or a powder, but it isn’t difficult to make. Besides, it is far more rewarding to make your own, and much more fun. So, why not try Culture Trip’s recommended Jamaican jerk recipe?
2 Ibs. chicken (wings, thighs and drumsticks work best)
2 oz. roasted pimento berries (crushed)
6 escallion stalks
4 cinnamon leaves
1 teaspoon of nutmeg (grated)
2 cloves of garlic
3 scotch bonnet peppers
3 sprigs of thyme
2 tablespoons of salt
1 tablespoon of black pepper
1 tablespoon of oil
2-3 tablespoons of white vinegar
Place the chicken into a bowl and set aside (this can be a whole chicken, butterflied breasts, thighs and drumsticks (our favourite) or diced pieces). Then blend all the other ingredients into a smooth paste. If your paste needs thinning, add more vinegar. Yes, it really is that simple to make authentic jerk seasoning. Rub the paste into the chicken and leave to marinate overnight. If time is an issue, just leave as long as your stomach will permit. The longer the better, but even a short marinade will create a nice jerk edge to the meat.
Once marinated/rubbed, place the chicken over a slow charcoal fire preferably made from pimento wood. If you’re using a barbecue at home, do not place over a direct flame – cook as slowly as possible with the lid closed to seal in the flavours. You can also bake it in an oven at 360 degrees for 45 minutes or until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through. Serve jerk alone or with any combination of rice and peas, breadfruit, bammy or festival.