In 2018, jerk-style food became the center of a media furor.
The technique of cooking uses a different marinade of herbs and spices that is native to Jamaica. However, it was stuck in the center of a heated debate in August 2018 after Jamie Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation for starting a line of “jerk rice” products. The products are said to eliminate some of the jerk’s essential ingredients, such as allspice and scotch bonnet peppers.
According to Labour MP Dawn Butler, the British chef’s branding was “not okay” which drove her to question whether Oliver even understood what “jerk” flavoring was.
“It’s not just a word you set before you sell your products in the market,” she wrote on Twitter. “Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.”
Creator of the Reggae Reggae jerk sauce, Jamaica-born chef Levi Roots, has called in about the dispute, explaining Oliver’s choice of branding as “a mistake”.
So what actually is a jerk and how do you execute it in its most ubiquitous kind: Chicken?
The term jerk is said to originate from charqui, a Spanish word of Quechua origin for jerked or dried meat, which finally became the word jerky in English.
Jerk also originated from the movement of “jerking”, a process of poking the meat so the flavor can incorporate quickly.
The term jerk spice (also generally known as Jamaican jerk spice) refers to a spice rub. It is a wet marinade and also a cooking method. Jerk cooking has acquired a global following, most prominently in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe’s cosmopolitan urban centers.
As distinguished Jamaican literary scholar, Carolyn Cooper, explains, jerk is “one of the surviving legacies of the union of African and Taíno cultures in Jamaica.”
The Taíno, an Arawak people, were members of the Caribbean’s Indigenous community. They were the earliest people to name the island Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.” They are also the first who came into contact with Europeans. This is when Columbus reached the island in 1494.
Spanish colonizers formally came 15 years later, but their settlement was inadequate and nearly underfunded as opposed to other Caribbean colonies. The Spanish did however begin enslaved labor to the island, which served essentially as a trading post.
The conflict between England and Spain reached the coasts of Jamaica in the middle of the 17th century, leading to a British attack. And then the Spanish fled the island for their more established settlement in Cuba. Those who had been enslaved retreated to the island’s mountains and became known as the Maroons—originated from the Spanish word cimarrones, meaning mountaineers.
But by the time the Maroons met the island’s first inhabitants, who had also lived in the difficult-to-traverse ranges, 90% of the Taíno people had become extinct. The British, meanwhile, quickly increased their presence in Jamaica, exporting enslaved labor from Africa that would become the engine of the booming sugar trade.
Over the years, the Maroons would increase in population as enslaved people would flee the plantations for the mountains.
As Cooper pointed out, “Archaeological proof stated that Maroons who refused enslavement and demanded freedom in the island’s mountainous depths settled among with the Indigenous people who endured the trauma of ‘discovery.’” They shared culinary cultures, and among those traditions was a “jerk”.
“The Maroons formed alliances with the Indigenous people who showed them how to cure meats with available spices and leaves and formed an underground cooking method to avoid their enemies,” says Gariel Ferguson, an acclaimed Chef. “The addition of the preservation of meat marks the gift of strategy and planning.”
To sustain themselves in the face of difficulty, the Maroons had to hunt, prepare, preserve, transport, nourish and support while always on the move for decades. Ferguson establishes it best: “Jerk is freedom demonstrated in food.”
Jerk, as a stand-alone word, refers to how meat is seasoned, smoked, and grilled. Whereas a traditional jerk seasoning recipe incorporates bird peppers, pimento, and pepper elder, jerk recipes nowadays include Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, pimento, thyme, and cinnamon.
Like barbecue from the American South, jerk today is a portion from the period of slavery when Maroons would convert tough cuts of meat into tender, delicious dishes.
According to Ferguson, who partook in the inaugural edition of the James Beard Foundation’s “Savoring Jamaica” festival, escapees traditionally hunted wild boar. They season the meat with pimento (allspice berries), salt, and bird peppers (a variety of chilies in the same family as cayenne) before wrapping it in pepper elder leaves. The last step is roasting the wild boar meat over dying embers in an underground smokeless pit.
The cooking method of jerking, as well as the results it delivers, has evolved from using pit fires to old oil barrel shares as the containing vessel of choice. Around the 1960s, Caribbean entrepreneurs trying to recreate the smoked pit quality by an easier, more portable way came up with an answer to cut oil barrels lengthwise and attach joints, drilling some ventilation holes for the smoke.
These barrels are fired with charcoal, which improves the spicy, smoky punch.
Alternatively, when these cooking techniques are unavailable, other methods of meat smoking, including wood-burning furnaces, can be used to jerk meat. However, oil barrels are presumably one of the most famous cooking methods for making jerk in Jamaica.
Most jerk in Jamaica is no longer prepared traditionally and is grilled over hardwood charcoal in a steel drum “jerk pan.”Street-side “jerk stands” or “jerk centers” are commonly located in Jamaica and the nearby Cayman Islands, as well as throughout the Caribbean diaspora and beyond.
Jerked meat, normally chicken or pork, can be obtained along with deep-fried cassava bammy (flatbread, usually with fish), Jamaican fried dumplings (known as “Johnnycake” or “journey cakes”), hard dough bread, and festival, a variety of sweet-flavored fried dumplings made with sugar and served as aside.
The smokeless pit’s significance derives from the fact that the Maroons, who sought refuge in Cockpit Country—the mountain range surrounding the plantations where they’d beforehand been enslaved—had to support themselves without revealing their locations. If they cooked over an open fire, the smoke would reveal them.
The Modern Jerk
Jerk today has evolved from portable, shelf-stable food like beef jerky into a culinary mainstay. It, too, has progressed from a celebratory meal to a member of everyday dining.
Jerk is on the lists of school cafeterias and office canteens. Everywhere the island, “jerk centers” (restaurants devoted to jerk cuisine), jerk pan men (male cooks who operate roadside jerk stands using transformed metal oil drums as smokers/grills), and women-operated cookshops that have jerk Fridays, are prolific.
Wherever Jamaicans move, they always bring jerks with them—some even end up opening their own Jamaican restaurants. The major Jamaican diaspora areas of New York City, Toronto, London, and Miami have always had energetic Jamaican and Caribbean restaurants. Jamaican patties are also served in the cafeterias of some Toronto school areas.
But in the last decade, companies have seemingly hopped on the “Brand Jamaica” train, with ill-fated ideas like Jamie Oliver’s rice packet.
Jamaicans don’t necessarily have a problem with others displaying affection for their culture. After all, they let the American cast of Cool Runnings get away with their horrifying Jamaican accents. But they do take issue with whitewashing a vital part of their culture and marketing it as authentic.
If global brands announced their products “Jamaican-style,” “Caribbean-style” or just “our take on Jamaican jerk,” instead of just jerk, many debates over the past several years could have been bypassed.
“Some people only concentrate on the intention of a jerk as a title which ends up losing its actual price of providing an excellent, genuine quality,” Ferguson stated.
Cooper resounds this view, noting, “Products like Campbell’s … Jammin’ Jerk Chicken With Rice and Beans soup are likely to be recognized with disdain by Jamaicans who know that real jerk food cannot be simply packaged for mass consumption. [They are] often watered down… missing the pungency of the pimento berries and Scotch bonnet pepper that are vital ingredients of the fiery seasoning.”
Craig Wong, a Michelin-trained Jamaican-Chinese chef, says he loves seeing the public’s growing receptiveness to Jamaican cuisine. So much so that it owns the famous Toronto restaurant Patois (named after one of the dialects spoken in Jamaica). Later, he opened Dubai’s first Jamaican restaurant, Ting Irie.
However, he’s transparent about where he holds regarding its appropriation.
“The way I search for new types of cuisines is by seeking not only the dish for revelation but by examining the foodways and welcoming everything the experts has to say about that cuisine as well.”
As Cooper states, jerk seasoning, “like reggae music, … has become a global Jamaican trademark.”
Each year, Grace Foods, the island’s biggest manufacturer and exporter of Jamaican food merchandise, sells near to three million jars of jerk seasoning (paste) worldwide.
As stated by Jamaica’s official culinary authorities, for a recipe to be labeled as a “genuine jerk,” the meat must be cooked by smoking it over a plank of pimento wood. Fortunately, a handful of online sellers with links to the island ship pimento wood chips to the United States.
Jerk, which is primarily chicken, is an element of Jamaican Christmas dinner along with roast beef, curried goat, oxtails, ham, and Jamaican Christmas cake (a translation of English plum pudding).
Two varieties of jerk seasoning—power and paste—are available commercially in mild and spicy categories. Jerk paste works as a marinade, enabling the flavors that intensify during smoking, to penetrate the meat right to the bone. Take warning: If you have an allergy to spice, even the mild flavor will make you feel a burning sensation that lingers.
All dishes must be celebratory, and jerk has always been the powerful and fragrant dish on every Jamaican table. Though not traditionally modified into a jerk, turkey and ham are great means to explore Jamaica’s flavors over the holidays.
How is Jerk Chicken Different from BBQ Chicken?
The main distinction between jerk chicken and regular BBQ chicken is the seasoning.
As described by Delroy Dixon, founder and chef at Caribbean eatery Rhythm Kitchen, “Whilst BBQ tends to be sweet and smoky, jerk seasoning fuses savory and sour flavors supported by a spicy peppery kick from the scotch bonnet peppers”.
How to Make a Perfect Jerk Chicken?
To make jerk chicken, you’ll need about two to three tablespoons of seasoning paste per pound of meat. Rub the seasoning into the meat and let it rest overnight. Then, smoke it, ideally in a smoker.
If you don’t own one, here’s how to transform your oven into a makeshift smoker:
- Place a cast-iron skillet or metal baking tray that’s at least an inch deep with aluminum foil.
- Coat with pimento wood chips and light on fire.
- Once the flames die down, put the tray or skillet on the bottom shelf of a preheated oven under the turkey or ham.
A 12-pound turkey will take approximately six-and-a-half hours in a regular smoker set at 240 degrees Fahrenheit. A leg of ham, meanwhile, needs approximately one-and-a-half hours per pound at 225 degrees.
Several grocery store chains across the U.S. carry ready-to-use jerk seasoning paste from producers like Grace. But if you’re up to the task of creating a homemade version, here’s a Jamaican-approved recipe:
- 6 medium-sized Scotch bonnet peppers (can replace with habaneros but not jalapeños)
- 1 yellow onion
- 1/2 cup minced scallions
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1/8 cup white vinegar
- 1/8 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons oil (vegetable, olive, or canola)
- 3 tablespoons minced ginger
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt (ignore if using on ham)
- 1 tablespoon crushed black pepper
- 1 tablespoon pimento berries (or 1½ teaspoons allspice)
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme
Put ingredients in a blender and pulse until the mixture turns into a smooth paste. The marinade can last up to six months inside the refrigerator.
The vast majority of historians concur that the Arawak Indians resided in Jamaica more than 2500 years ago. They used a method for smoking and drying meat in the sun, and they would sometimes cook it over a slow fire.
These were methods that were common in Peru, and they could take the dried beef on lengthier journeys, and that is what makes up modern jerk cooking today.
You have only to go on vacation to discover that all across Jamaica, there are jerk huts. You can distinguish these huts based on the lovely aroma coming from them. Often, these are sheds and the dining takes place outside.
If you decide to have your holiday in Negril, you will find this is very common. If you do choose to have it in Jamaica, check out the jerk food in Negril.