Hearing someone say “jerk chicken,” a lot of different things can come to mind. In America, we tend to associate the name with a sauce or marinade that we can buy in a bottle in the supermarket. Most people do know that it has its origins in Jamaica, but not much more than that.
In reality, jerk cooking can mean a lot more than sauce and include a lot more kinds of meats than just chicken. To understand the style better, first, we start with the roots.
In the mid-17th century, war broke out in Jamaica, then occupied by the Spanish, between the Spaniards and the invading British. The Spanish had established a small operation with African slave labor. In the upheaval of the battle, the Spanish fled and the enslaved people, known now as Maroons, retreated to the mountains to avoid capture.
The Maroons exchanged goods and knowledge with the local indigenous population of Taino natives. Using the spicy herb and pepper combinations they learned from the Taino, the maroons would cook their meats in large “underground fires.” This pit-style coal cooking with little to no visible flame or smoke was designed to help them keep a low profile.
As far as the actual flavor profile goes, there is a traditional recipe (bird peppers, pimento, and pepper elder). By now, though, the name jerk can be ascribed to a large variety of different sauces, ranging from the very spicy to the very sweet. You may find Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, pimento, thyme, cinnamon, and even fruit or brown sugar in some store brand or restaurant recipes.
Sauce, however, is not the only way to make jerk dishes. A dry rub can also be used, full of powerful spices and dried chilies. The powder is applied to the meat for hours, or even days, before cooking time.
The meat choice could be anything you like. In Jamaica, the most popular kinds of jerk dishes feature chicken, pork, sausage, goat, boar, seafood, and even vegetables as the center of the meal. Jerk chicken is part of Jamaican Christmas dinner, alongside oxtail and brown stew.
Jerk is no longer reserved for special occasions, however, and is now served for everything from a weeknight dinner to a lunch served in the school cafeteria. Usual side dishes include rice and peas, steamed cabbage, fried plantains, or festivals, which is a small fried bread.
Based on your preferences, make the marinade as hot or as sweet as you like it. To emulate the “underground fire,” set up your smoker for low and slow cooking. The Pimento wood chips will give you the best flavor. The cooking time is going to vary based on your protein, but 150 to 200 degrees is a good temperature.
As you can see, jerk cooking has a storied, complex history, resulting in a rich legacy that still stands today. So enjoy the jerk flavors! Try out your own blend, pick out a premade mix or pay a visit to your local Caribbean restaurant.