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My mother is from Jamaica and raised me on the food she grew up with. A few years ago, I asked her to teach me some of her specialties, and we started a blog about it. I was most interested in learning about wickedly spicy jerk pork and chicken, dishes synonymous with Jamaican cuisine and culture.
The name jerk likely comes from the same root as jerky. It refers to both the complex seasoning of Scotch bonnet peppers, salt, thyme, allspice, nutmeg, and other spices used to flavor the meat as well as the method of preparation: The meat is brined and marinated, then smoked slowly and basted with more of that fiery marinade.
The name jerk pork likely comes from the same root as ‘jerky.’ It refers to both the complex seasoning used to flavor the meat as well as the method used to cook it.
Jerk’s origin story is based on folklore, so there are many tales out there. Most people agree, though, that it’s rooted in Maroon culture—that of African slaves who escaped in the 1600s to the mountains of Jamaica and lived with indigenous Arawak people, seeking refuge from colonizers. The Maroons hunted wild boar and preserved the meat in a rich blend of herbs and spices. They used an Arawak cooking method to smoke the meat, digging holes in the ground and filling them with hot coals. They would put the meat in the holes and cover it so smoke wouldn’t attract the attention of those who might capture them.
In the years since, chicken has become the more common meat to jerk, because it’s cheaper and more accessible, but I prefer the flavor and history of pork. Whether chicken or pork, in Jamaica, jerk is made in jerk pits—open grills heated with hot wood coals and lined with wood from allspice trees, called pimento there. Corrugated metal is placed on top to hold in the smoke. Pimento wood is hard to find outside the Caribbean, but mild, fruity wood chips like applewood infuse plenty of smoky flavor, particularly when used with a charcoal grill. That smokiness, along with the delicious jerk seasoning and tender, juicy pork, will give you a true taste of Jamaica—one you’re sure to love as I do.
Getting the jerk flavor
Getting the jerk flavor
How to set up your grill
Jerk pork is smoked at a low temperature over indirect heat (meaning not directly over the heat source). A charcoal grill will give the smokiest flavor, but a gas grill will get the job done, too.
For a charcoal grill
• Ignite a chimney starter full of lump charcoal or briquettes, and burn until the edges of the coals look ashy, about 15 minutes.
• Carefully dump out the coals and use tongs to pile them over half of the charcoal grate.
• Close the lid, and let the coals burn down until the temperature is about 325°F.
• Place a pan full of water next to the coals.
• When ready to cook the pork, scatter the wood chips over the coals, and put the cooking grate in place.
• If the temperature drops during cooking, ignite half a chimney of charcoal and spread it over the charcoal grate.
For a gas grill
• Turn all the burners on high and close the lid to heat the grill until it reaches 300°F to 325°F.
• Turn off all but one burner, and adjust the lit burner to maintain the temperature.
• Place a pan of water over the hot zone of the grill.
• When ready to cook the pork, put the wood chips in a smoker box and place it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.