Jamaican Jerk

jerk festival

Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a very hot spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice. Jerk seasoning is traditionally applied to pork and chicken. Modern recipes also apply jerk spice mixes to fish, shrimp, shellfish, beef, sausage, lamb, and tofu. Jerk seasoning principally relies upon two items: allspice (called ‘pimento’ in Jamaica) and Scotch bonnet peppers (similar in heat to the habanero pepper). Other ingredients include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, and salt.

The term jerk is said to come from the word ‘charqui,’ a Spanish term of Quechua origin for jerked or dried meat, which eventually became jerky in English. The term jerk spice (also often commonly known as Jamaican jerk spice) refers to a spice rub. The word jerk refers to both the spice rub and to the particular cooking technique.

One theory as to its origin argues that Jamaican jerk sauce is actually African and can be traced back to the pre-slavery days of the Cormantee hunters of West Africa. When the British invaded Jamaica in 1655 the Spanish colonists fled, leaving behind a large number of African slaves. Rather than be re-enslaved by the British, they escaped into Jamaica’s mountainous regions where they mixed in with the local Taínos (the indigenous population).

Though Jamaican jerk sauce certainly was derived from African ancestry, it is something that was adapted and modified over hundreds of years as various cultures added their influence. From the start, changes had to be made since the Cormantee slaves found themselves in new surroundings on the island of Jamaica and were forced to use what was available to them. As a result, there was naturally a departure from some of the original spices used in jerk and new ingredients were added or substituted as necessary. One new addition to the recipe was the Scotch bonnet pepper, which is largely responsible for the heat found in Caribbean jerks.

The cooking technique of jerking, as well as the results it produces, has evolved over time from using pit fires to old oil barrel halves as the container of choice. Around the 1960s, Caribbean entrepreneurs seeking to recreate the smoked pit flavor in an easier, more portable method came up with a solution to cut oil barrels lengthwise and attach hinges, drilling several ventilation holes for the smoke. These barrels are fired with charcoal, which enhances the spicy, smoky taste. Alternatively, when these cooking methods aren’t available, other methods of meat smoking, including wood burning ovens, can be used to jerk meat.

Street-side jerk stands or jerk centers are frequently found in Jamaica and the nearby Cayman Islands, as well as throughout the Caribbean diaspora and beyond. Jerked meat, usually chicken or pork, can be purchased along with hard dough bread, deep fried cassava bammy (flatbread, usually with fish), Jamaican fried dumplings (known as Johnny or journey cakes), and festival, a variation of sweet flavored fried dumplings made with sugar and served as a side (originally from Trinidad).

Jerk cooking and seasoning has followed the Caribbean diaspora all over the world, and forms of jerk can now be found at restaurants almost anywhere a significant population of Caribbean descent exists, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, or the United States. French Caribbean’s ‘Poulet boucané’ is quite similar to traditional Jamaican jerk chicken.

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