Behind the spicy, smoky and savoury taste of Caribbean jerk chicken is a history as rich as its flavour – intriguing, richly aromatic and sweet, but insistently hot. Each and every one of the zillion charcoal-fueled grills across the Caribbean region boasts its own secret recipe using a traditional mix of thyme, fresh ginger, scallions, fiery Scotch bonnet peppers and plenty of allspice.
No matter where you are in the Caribbean, the sign of belching smoke means only one thing – someone’s loaded up a grill with spice-rubbed jerk. Chicken is the favoured meat, with pork a close second – but everything, in theory, can be jerked in the Caribbean, from prawns and goat to meaty fish. In Jamaica, the spice rub can be as hot as Hades with a pungent, coarse texture that ensures a satisfying snap of thyme twigs and cracked allspice berries as you bite. In Tobago, jerk is a more fragrant and smoky barbecue tradition – the brown paste is still chili-speckled but with a more subtle burn. In St Lucia, the recipe is straight-up sticky-sweet with sweet wood, spicy and herbal flavours at the fore.
Conversely, in Barbados, you’ll find lime juice cutting through the robust herb mix with tell-tale zesty zing. However, there are dramatic variations in the mix, not just from island to island but from village to village: some cooks transform the rub into a marinade by adding extra soy sauce or vinegar. Others swear by a drier rub for a crustier jerk. Many simply adapt the recipe handed down from generations before them, often favouring something somewhere in the middle – with an extra dollop and a unique flourish and an irresistible sizzle.
Smoking food in pits dug into the earth dates back to the Caribbean’s indigenous Maroons, a resourceful race who could never have imagined that their culinary innovation would eventually tantalize the taste buds of millions of people across a region spanning over 2 million square miles in size. Today the mouth-watering taste of jerk has evolved over hundreds of years as various cultures have added their influence, from African slaves to European colonists and Asian immigrants.
In Jamaica’s Montego Bay, the beach-side Pork Pit is a much-hailed gastronomic temple for dry-rubbed jerk. Wild allspice (called pimento in Jamaica) is used generously in the mix here, which pleases the jerk-obsessed purists, from the berries that are crushed into the meat to the leaves that burn slowly on the hot coals to add that distinctive smoky-peppery tang.
In Tobago the meat is kept juicy with a robust, well-seasoned marinade a lot thicker and chunkier than many other Caribbean jerk chicken variations. You’ll find jerk vendors at Pigeon Point and in the side-streets of central Scarborough. In St Lucia, beautifully tenderized meats – as well as fish, poultry and vegetables – are cooked slowly in a spicy-sugary-sweet marinade. St Lucians love their jerk sauce and you’ll find it smothered on steak, chicken, pork, shrimp, lamb, and just about everything else at JD’s restaurant at Marigot Bay.
In Barbados the soy sauce and lime mix penetrates the meat at the family-owned Reggae Grill on Hastings Main Road in Christ Church where the jerk wings are divine. Like your jerk extra-spicy? Just ask for a little more Scotch Bonnet – and a big jug of water!
Header photo: A street vendor watches over a large batch of jerk chicken © jbor, 2013. Used under licence from Shutterstock.com
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About the author: SarahWoodsSarah Woods
Award-winning travel writer, author & broadcaster Sarah Woods has lived, worked and travelled in The Caribbean since 1995. She has visited resort towns, villages and lesser-known islands where she has learned to cook run-down, sampled bush rum, traded coconuts, studied traditional medicine, climbed volcanoes and ridden horses in the sea. Sarah is currently working on a travel documentary about the history of Caribbean cruises.