Jamaican Jerk
by Mark R. Vogel

            In 1494, on his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus landed on Jamaica.  He found a beautiful island paradise inhabited by the Arawak and Taino peoples. Originally from South America, they settled in Jamaica somewhere between 10,000 and 4,000 BC.  Like most European excursions into the new World, Columbus’s proclaiming of Jamaica for Spain contributed to centuries of territorial warfare, the proliferation of slavery, and the rapacious pillaging of the Caribbean’s natural resources.  In 1655 Admiral William Penn (1621-1670), (father of the William Penn who founded the colony of Pennsylvania) seized the island for the British.  England ruled Jamaica for 200 years, profiting from the exportation of sugar on the backs of African slaves. 

            Some of these slaves escaped.  As early as the initial 1655 invasion, runaway slaves, (known as the Maroons), eluded their captors and established their own inland communities in Jamaica and other Caribbean lands.  Their culture reflected their African ancestry intermingled with elements of western influences.  Culinary traditions are one constituent of their cultural mosaic and one of the most famous is Jamaican jerk seasoning.   The origins of Jamaican jerk seasoning can be traced through the Maroons, all the way to their ancestral hunters of Western Africa. 

            “Jerk” originally referred to a process of curing and drying meat, hence the term beef jerky.  The term derives from the Quecha language, spoken by the indigenous denizens of Peru.  They referred to preserved, dried meat as "charqui" which was somehow transmuted via the Spanish and the English to “jerk.”  There’s another theory that “jerk” refers to the process of repeatedly flipping grilled meat, i.e., jerking it.  Even if that's true, repeated flipping is not the proper procedure for grilling.  Generally speaking grilled items are seared on their first side, flipped once, and then seared on the other. 

            Eventually, jerk evolved into a way of spicing food, either as dry rub or, when mixed with some form of liquid, as a marinade.  Jerk recipes vary from cook to cook but they virtually always include hot peppers, thyme, garlic, onions, and spices, primarily allspice, but also cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg.  Sugar and ginger are common ingredients as well. Liquids include citrus juices, vegetable oil, and sometimes, obviously breaking with Caribbean tradition, soy sauce.  Jerk is principally used on grilled meat, especially chicken and pork.  In addition to being jerked, the grilled item is often cooked over redolent wood to add to the naturally smoky taste.

            The hot peppers used in Jamaican jerk seasoning are Scotch bonnets.  They are often confused with or assumed to be the same chile as the habanero.  While similar in appearance and heat level they are two distinct chile peppers.  The scotch bonnet is a cultivar of the habanero.  They sometimes have a somewhat flattened top resembled a tam o’shanter, a flat Scottish hat, ergo the moniker Scotch bonnet.  Scotch bonnets are slightly smaller than habaneros and relatively speaking, a little less hot.  I stress “relatively” because even the Scotch bonnets are among the hottest peppers on earth.  In any event, Scotch bonnets and habaneros can be used interchangeably in Jamaican jerk seasoning.

 

JAMAICAN JERK CHICKEN

 

4 Scotch bonnets or habanero peppers, (more or less to taste), stems removed

1 large batch scallions

1 small piece of ginger, peeled

8 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Salt and pepper to taste

Juice of 3 limes

Vegetable oil, as needed

6 pieces of chicken, legs and/or thighs

 

            Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and mix.  Then, with the food processor or blender running, slowly add a thin stream of oil until the mixture comes together into the consistency of a thick marinade.  Reserve a small amount of the marinade.  Place the chicken and the larger amount of the marinade in a sealable, plastic bag and marinate the chicken for at least two hours or overnight. 

            Preheat and grease your grill.  Remove the chicken from the marinade and place on the grill, searing the first side, (about 3-5 minutes).  Flip the chicken, drizzle on the reserved marinade, and sear the other side.  Move the chicken to an area of indirect heat, (such as the grate above the grill) and cook it until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. 

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