For most people, Jamaica brings to mind beautiful beaches and reggae music. But when I think of Jamaica, my thoughts drift first to the island’s spicy, delicious cuisine, especially jerk chicken. Jerk is a dry, spicy method of cooking meat (usually chicken or pork), and it’s also the name of the hot, bitter, and sweet seasoning mixture that flavors the meat. The heat comes from Scotch bonnet chiles and fresh ginger, the bitterness from allspice and cloves, and the sweetness from cinnamon, onions, and scallions.
When I visit Jamaica, my favorite place to eat traditional jerk chicken is in Boston Bay. The guys in this northeastern region are jerk experts. Over a shallow pit in the ground, they build a rack of allspice tree branches. For fuel, they use more allspice branches (those that were used as racks the previous day), along with other wood. They butterfly a whole chicken, rub it with jerk seasoning, and cook it on the rack over a gentle fire. They cover the chicken with wood planks to trap the aroma and contribute even more smoky flavor. Using a big fork, the cook lifts and turns the chicken in one fluid motion, and then he shakes, or jerks, the fork free. (Some say this act of removing the fork is where jerk got its name, but I have my doubts.)
As much as I love Boston Bay jerk chicken, it’s a bit of a project to make at home. So my version uses chicken pieces instead of a butterflied bird and a grill instead of a pit. To mimic the smoky flavor of allspice branches, I’ve increased the allspice in the seasoning. Most Jamaicans wouldn’t be shy about using several Scotch bonnet chiles, but I’ve cut back the amount in the recipe below to tame the heat.
In addition to being a terrific marinade for grilled chicken or pork, jerk seasoning adds a note of complexity to stews, soups, and roasts, or even sauces. If you’re using the seasoning on grilled fish or seafood, use only a light coating and marinate for no more than 5 or 10 minutes.
When you prepare jerk chicken at home, Jamacian Rice & Beans is a tasty side dish to serve with it.
Jerk seasoning ingredients
Depending on the amount of onions and scallions used, jerk seasoning can be a dry rub or a moister paste. Regardless, the seasoning should include these four ingredients:
Known also as pimento and Jamaica pepper, allspice is indigenous to Jamaica. In fact, the island is one of the world’s largest suppliers of the spice. The berries look like peppercorns but taste like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, hence the name. In jerk seasoning, allspice delivers a nutty, slightly bitter flavor. Jamaicans usually buy whole berries and crack or grind them when needed, which is often. Allspice makes an appearance in almost every savory Jamaican dish I can think of, as well as in some alcoholic drinks.
Scotch bonnet chiles
One of the hottest chiles in the world (some say the hottest), Scotch bonnets are irregularly shaped with color ranging in shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. This small chile looks very much like a habanero, which is sold in most supermarkets and which is a fine substitute. If you do find Scotch bonnets in the market, use care when handling them: wear gloves, remove the seeds and veins, and consider using less to start with. Some people claim to pick up a hint of sweetness through the fiery punch, but all I ever get is the punch.
Jamaicans mainly use this bumpy rhizome fresh rather than as a ground powder. They’re meticulous about washing it but not about peeling it, and they often leave the skin on. When I do peel ginger, I use the edge of a spoon instead of a knife because it’s easier, safer, and doesn’t waste any of the fibrous flesh. Jamaican ginger has a distinctive aroma and a spicy, sweet flavor that’s much more pungent than what’s sold in U.S. markets.
If there’s one herb that’s predominant in Jamaican cuisine, it’s thyme. In jerk seasoning, as in most Jamaican dishes, thyme doesn’t shout its presence but in a quiet way brings out the best in everything else.
To learn more…
To learn more about jerk and Jamaican cooking, Mark Henry recommends Jerk: Barbecue from Jamaica by Helen Willinsky and The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson.