Next to reggae, jerk style cooking is probably what Jamaica is most famous for. Today, we are headed to the country of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt for a delicious Jamaican jerk chicken recipe.
What is jerk cooking?
Jerk is a traditional Jamaican cooking style that uses a marinade (or paste) that combines pimento (allspice), as well as scotch bonnet peppers at a minimum.
Most people who have tried a real Jamaican jerk will tell you: it hurts! Yes, jerk marinade is supposed to give more than a kick to the meat. Get your tastebuds prepared!
Indeed, scotch bonnet pepper is one of the world’s most fiery chiles (100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units). It features a sweet heat that develops in the mouth rather than explodes. Scotch bonnet peppers can be substituted for habaneros, which are sometimes easier to find.
How to make jerk chicken
The meat, typically pork or chicken, is marinated before it is smoked over pimento wood. Pimento is originally a Spanish word used for pepper. Because of its resemblance to black peppercorn, European explorers who discovered allspice called it pimento.
Pimento wood is a fragrant tropical tree. Along with pimento (allspice) and Scotch bonnet peppers, it is one of the unique flavors of jerk. An authentic jerk should be cooked over a low fire, over pimento wood chips.
In addition to pimento berries (allspice) and pimento wood, you are also supposed to use dried pimento leaves in the jerk marinade, but these can also be replaced by bay leaves.
What is the origin of jerk cooking?
The term jerk is believed to come from the Spanish word of Quechua origin, charqui. This word which is used to designate dried meat, eventually gave birth to the English word jerky.
Also, jerking refers to the action of poking holes in the meat so that it can more easily absorb all the flavors of the marinade. Jerk could also have come from the flipping of the meat in the marinade.
Jamaica was settled more than 2500 years ago by the Arawak Indians from South America. At the time, the Arawaks used to smoke and dry meat under the sun or over a slow fire. Such techniques were common in Peru. Dried beef could easily be transported over long distance. It was eaten as is or chopped and rehydrated in boiling water.
When the British invaded the country in 1655, the Spanish fled, leaving behind the African slaves. To escape the potential British re-enslavement, these slaves known as the Maroons, fled to the Blue Mountains where they eventually lived with the local Taínos, one of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.
The Maroons used to hunt wild boar. They rubbed the meat with a paste composed of spices, onions, ginger, and chiles, which they slowly smoked over pimento fires in pits. The method helped tenderize as well as preserve the meat.
One of the main additions to the recipe is the Scotch bonnet pepper. This ingredient is largely responsible for the heat found in Jamaican jerk.
The term jerk can refer to the spice rub (jerk spices), the wet marinade (dry rub combined with fresh ingredients), as well as the particular cooking technique over pimento wood.
The jerk cooking technique as well as the seasoning have followed the Caribbean culture all over the world, and different versions of jerk can now be found all over the world. Poulet boucané (smoked chicken) from the French West Indies is a distant cousin to traditional Jamaican jerk chicken.
Indeed, jerkmen, as Jamaica’s pitmasters are called, now cook their jerk in modified steel drums or grills covered with sheets of corrugated tin.
Their jerk, usually made with chicken or pork, can be purchased with hard dough bread (hardo bread), deep fried cassava bammy (flatbread), Johnny cakes, and festival (sweet fried dumplings). Other, non traditional meats, such snapper, lobster, shrimp, or even tofu, are sometimes jerked.
At home, if you have a smoker, I would recommend cooking the jerk chicken slowly with pimento wood. If like me, you do not have a smoker just yet, you can grill your jerk chicken over your BBQ. Use pimento wood or other aromatic woods if you can, your jerk chicken recipe will only taste better.
Put on some Bob Marley and enjoy. Yeah man!
- 6 chicken legs
- 3 tablespoons whole allspice
- 3 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 2 bay leaves , crumbled
- 4 Scotch bonnet (or habanero chiles), stemmed and seeded
- 4 scallions , trimmed and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves , peeled
- 1 (1-inch piece) fresh ginger , scrubbed
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 4 tablespoons rum
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
- 4 tablespoons lime juice
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- Salt , to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper , to taste
- Mix all the dry spices in a food processor until getting a ground spice blend.
- Add all the other jerk paste ingredients and continue blending to until obtaining a paste.
- Place the chicken legs in a shallow container and rub the chicken legs with the paste. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.
- Set BBQ grill on high. After reaching at least 400 F, place the chicken legs, skin side down and cook for 10 minutes.
- Then, set grill at lowest possible setting, and flip the chicken legs. Grill until fully cooked, about 30 minutes.
- Serve with hard-dough bread, festivals (fried dumplings), rice and peas (beans) or salad.