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Jerk in Jamaica: what is it, why is it so popular and how to cook it at home

Jerk chicken is Jamaica’s second national dish  (Getty/iStock)
Jerk chicken is Jamaica’s second national dish (Getty/iStock)

Jerk chicken is a staple dish if you’re a fan of African or Caribbean cuisine. A food group in its own right, almost, the meal has practically developed a cult following. Try as you might, there’s nothing quite like that smoked spice hitting your taste buds.

Chargrilled meats always win, in my opinion. An elite taste and texture. If you don’t come away reeking of the smoke, there wasn’t enough. Whether it’s grilled Brazilian steakhouse or Persian kebabs, it beats fried food any day of the week.

This is exactly how jerk chicken (or pork etc) is cooked, delivering that sweet smokiness while keeping the meat juicy and succulent. My own experience with the food has been at the annual Notting Hill carnival – where I spend the day salivating and devouring delicious jerk all day long (in between drinking and dancing, of course) – and at friends’ houses, where they combine their cooking skills and roots to put on quite the spread for us all. There’s never a single piece left in the pot and some have been known to lick it clean. I’m not known for my punctuality but I’m getting there on time if I know jerk is on the menu.

Aniké Wildman, of Jamaican heritage, can count the number of times she has jerk chicken in the UK a year on one hand “because it’s not even something that is so readily available… most places (even if they’re Jamaican fronted) aren’t doing traditional jerk because it’s not in the man; the wood’s not right – there are lots of factors.

“So, you have to go through so many filters before you even get good jerk chicken that it’s often not worth the while to go non-Jamaican because it’ll often be someone who believes they know how to do it but actually doesn’t.”

So back to the jerk in Jamaica. While ackee and saltfish is the country’s national dish – and a tasty one at that – jerk chicken has become more widely known. Touring Jamaica and eating at some local favourites, I investigate why this is.

A brief history of jerk chicken

Native to Jamaica, cooking jerk chicken involves meat (or alternative) to be marinated and then grilled or smoked over a fire. It is the cooking technique that is “jerking”, not the seasoning – a concept commonly misunderstood in the western world. The origins of jerk cooking can be traced back to the indigenous Arawak and Taíno people of Jamaica, where the technique of preserving and flavouring meats this way was passed down in the 17th century. Enslaved Africans who fled into the mountains during the Spanish invasion of Jamaica in 1655 would have to disguise the fires, so they were taught to cover the meat with wood.

A traditional jerk chicken stand in Jamaica (Getty/iStock)
A traditional jerk chicken stand in Jamaica (Getty/iStock)

Over time, the initial recipe has been modified – particularly with the addition of other cultures’ influences. Jerk seasoning typically consists of a blend of spices such as allspice (known locally as pimento) and scotch bonnet pepper – with other herbs and spices (thyme, ginger, garlic, among others) also coming into the mix. The meat is traditionally chicken or pork and is marinated in the spices for several hours before being cooked over a wood fire, to achieve the iconic smoky taste. Traditionally, jerk chicken or pork is cooked in a pit or on a grill, although more contemporary cooking methods are also used nowadays.

A staple of Jamaican cuisine, jerk chicken in particular has become internationally renowned, and is often served with rice and peas, fried plantain and festival (a type of sweet fried dumpling). Jerk chicken and pork are enjoyed all over the world (as well as fish), thanks to the Jamaican diaspora and popularity of Caribbean cuisine.

Jamaican jerk stands out from other Caribbean styles of cooking, due to its unique blend of spices, cooking techniques and cultural significance. The signature blend of the aforementioned spices creates an aromatic flavour profile that is synonymous with Jamaican jerk and the traditional wood-fire cooking method is what imparts the smoky flavour to the meat, adding the depth and complexity for which the dish is known.

According to chef Dextor Hinds (executive sous chef at Jewel Paradise Cove, Jamaica), “jerk is practised throughout the [Caribbean] but what makes it different in Jamaica is the passion and cooking technique – alongside the use of special firewood, authentic herbs and spices, which are locally grown.”

Jerk cooking also has deep cultural significance in Jamaica, often being associated with outdoor gatherings, celebrations and events. It’s not simply a way of preparing food but also a social and cultural tradition. While other Caribbean islands may have their own versions of grilled or spiced meats, Jamaican jerk stands out as a distinctive and beloved aspect of Caribbean cuisine.

Jerk chicken is traditionally cooked over fire, but similar flavours can be achieved on a grill (Getty)
Jerk chicken is traditionally cooked over fire, but similar flavours can be achieved on a grill (Getty)

Chef Dextor goes on to say that “this common practice of preparation using the same ingredients has since been modernised to what is now called ‘smoking’”.

“The ‘smoking’ method of cooking evolved over the years into what we now call jerk and is a part of our heritage; it is almost impossible to live in Jamaica and not indulge in any form of jerk, this cooking method is applied to many dishes, such as chicken, pork, fish, rabbit and vegetables, just to name a few. Jerk is very easy to prepare and the method of cooking is cost effective too.”

Jerk cooking in Jamaica

Almost every restaurant in Jamaica will be serving up a jerk dish to tingle your tastebuds, and I was fortunate enough to sample a real variety while visiting the island. According to Chef Dextor, Scotchies is one of his favourite places to eat on the island, so I was glad to have checked that off my list – although I’ll have to make another trip to visit Boston Jerk in Port Antonio (apparently the Portland chefs use more authentic herbs and spices, making the dish less commercial at this location).

Lystra Lawrence James, meeting and special events professional at Jewel Grande Montego Bay Resort and Spa adds that “[jerk is] a Jamaican tradition – and everyone thinks theirs is the best!” I am told that traditional jerk often comes simply in a paper box or basket; chopped up pork or chicken or maybe a whole fish, whereas more formal occasions or parties warrant an impressive meat dish (such as suckling pig) on the table, with jerk seasoning.

S Hotel, Montego Bay

Guests are never short for something to eat at S Hotel (Amira Arasteh)
Guests are never short for something to eat at S Hotel (Amira Arasteh)

S Hotel in Montego Bay boasts an impressive seven restaurants and cafes, with guests never being short of something to eat (no, we’re serious – the cafe is 24 hours). Rocksteady restaurant offers contemporary classics, made with fresh, local ingredients. The jerk prawn and couscous salad meant the meal started off more than right, while both the snapper in scotch bonnet sauce and the Jamaican-style surf and turf dishes satisfied all diners at the table. Jamrock is the hotel’s finer dining eatery, on its Sky Deck, complete with Caribbean sea views, yet still serves up some excellent jerk dishes. I tried the jerk pork chop, as well as the ribeye steak with jerk hollandaise and while the pork chop was my favourite (and more authentic) dish of the evening, it was nice to try a contemporary twist on the steak, too.

Keeping things simple, The Grill (S Hotel’s poolside jerk shack) was where I sampled my favourite meal. No frills food is often where it’s at, to be honest, and The Grill certainly proved that. Serving up jerk chicken, fried fish, pepper steak (I’m drooling as I type, instantly transported back and remembering absolutely devouring this meal. Side note: eating the biggest of meal of your life in a bikini is a new level of contentedness unlocked) – plus all the sides; rice and peas, plantain etc. Unpretentious and completely satisfying.

shoteljamaica.com

Scotchies, St Ann’s

Scotchies is a renowned Jamaican jerk restaurant chain (Amira Arasteh)
Scotchies is a renowned Jamaican jerk restaurant chain (Amira Arasteh)

Scotchies is a renowned Jamaican jerk restaurant chain, known for serving up authentic and flavourful jerk dishes. Since coming onto the scene in 1991, the restaurant (which is more of a charming roadside cooking hut) has become a staple of Jamaican cuisine, attracting locals and tourists alike, with its delicious offerings and relaxed, outdoor dining experience.

My top tip is to arrive early, friends, as we did not (Jamaican traffic was not on my tummy’s side, you see) but we did manage to secure some goods. The smell is intoxicating as you queue to place your order and basically everything starts to water when you’re face to face with the succulent meals being cooked on the wood fire. Still, even having witnessed all of that, it remains a euphoric experience, peeling back the tin foil to reveal the food. I’m talking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory level of elatedness – except there was no time to jump around and sing and dance, as there was jerk to be wolfed down. Everything was incredible – the jerk pork, sausage and chicken, all packed with such flavour and that seductive smokiness, and drizzled with copious amounts (for those who can handle their spice) pepper sauce and some good old festival on the side.

Although Scotchies’ jerk seasoning blend is said to be a closely guarded secret, it typically includes that of traditional jerk marinade: allspice (pimento), scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, garlic, ginger and other herbs and spices.

instagram.com/scotchiesjamaica

Miss Lily’s, Negril

Miss Lil’s is a vibrant restaurant in Negril that’s an homage to Jamaican culture (Amira Arasteh)
Miss Lil’s is a vibrant restaurant in Negril that’s an homage to Jamaican culture (Amira Arasteh)

I am of the mindset that only good food can improve the (literal) dampening a rainy day brings and on our one and only in Jamaica, it was Miss Lily’s to the rescue. Tasked with no mean feat (I am a sun worshipper to the core), we stopped by Miss Lily’s vibrant restaurant in Negril, immediately met with a lively atmosphere and the wafts of delicious smelling food. An homage to Jamaican culture, the restaurant sits along the famous Seven Mile Beach, offering both good food and good views.

While the brand originated in New York, it has quickly become a popular spot for both tourists and locals, with a menu filled with classic Jamaican dishes, prepared with a contemporary twist. From jerk chicken and grilled seafood to ackee and saltfish and curry goat, the restaurant offers a diverse array of options that showcase the island’s diverse culinary heritage. Vegetarian and vegan options are also available, ensuring that there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

The Red Stripe beer battered fish sandwich and jerk salmon kept other guests’ mouths shut for the entirety of the meal, while I, on the other hand, had jerk barbecue spare ribs that stayed with me in my dreams long after my trip. Perfectly marinated, succulent pork and able to be cleaned to the bone with complete ease, the meat fell off the bone immediately (seriously, at times, I missed my mouth and it was nothing to do with table manners or the drug-like state these ribs had me in) and the sweet, smoky glaze was just mouthwatering.

skylarknegril.com/eat

Jewel Paradise Cove, Ocho Rios

Jewel Paradise Cove boasts 12 bars and restaurants that range from the local to the high end (Amira Arasteh)
Jewel Paradise Cove boasts 12 bars and restaurants that range from the local to the high end (Amira Arasteh)

Boasting 12 bars and restaurants, guests can rest assured they will never go hungry at Jewel Paradise Cove. If you’re looking for local food, Platinum is the restaurant to book as it combines Caribbean cuisine with Jamaican flair – plus offers gorgeous ocean views as you enjoy your meal. Ideal for seafood lovers, this restaurant puts a spin on some traditional favourites. Some things in life are not meant for choosing so I was thrilled to be able to order both the grilled lobster with jerk garlic butter and the seafood boil with jerk sauce.

The former involved an indulgent and flavourful experience that fuses the succulent sweetness of lobster with the bold and spicy flavours of Jamaican jerk seasoning and rich, aromatic garlic butter. The lobster, freshly grilled to perfection, boasted a charred exterior that gave way to tender meat inside, and with each bite, your tastebuds were treated to a symphony of flavours. Similarly with the boil, the freshness of the seafood contrasted wonderfully with the spicy, aromatic notes of Jamaican jerk seasoning. Each mouthful was a harmonious blend of savoury, spice and sweetness, with the kick of the jerk sauce adding complexity to this holiday favourite.

For more classic jerk dishes, the seaside shack on the beach cooks up a storm for lunch and post-swim snacking every day.

jewelresorts.com/paradisecove

Miss T’s Kitchen, Ocho Rios

Miss T’s is a beloved culinary gem in the heart of Ocho Rios (Miss T’s/Jamaica Tourist Board)
Miss T’s is a beloved culinary gem in the heart of Ocho Rios (Miss T’s/Jamaica Tourist Board)

Miss T’s Kitchen is a beloved culinary gem, nestled in the heart of Ocho Rios. Located in a colourful, cosy space, adorned with local artwork, Miss T’s Kitchen offers guests an authentic taste of Jamaican home cooking and is named after owner and chef Anna-Kay Tomlinson, who continues to bring her passion for traditional Jamaican flavours and ingredients to every dish.

The menu at Miss T’s Kitchen features a tantalising array of Jamaican specialties, prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients and bursting with bold flavours. From hearty stews and curries to succulent jerk chicken and savoury seafood dishes, there’s something to satisfy every palate. Famous for their ox cheek, of course this was a must-order during my visit, but I also opted to try the curried coat, along with the classic rice and peas. I don’t know whether it was being tired from a day of canyon jumping and waterfall climbing but while previous meals we’d had were pure injections of flavour, the stews at Miss T’s offered a new level of comfort. Hearty and soothing to the soul, the incredible depth of flavour was still present in all dishes but there was a warming sense of bliss as each mouthful was consumed. Core memory time – it kind of reminded me of lapping up spoonfuls of my mum’s homemade ash (Persian soup) after a gruelling swimming lesson (I am not a natural athlete) on a wintry evening.

misstskitchen.com

Hyatt Zilara (and Ziva) Rose Hall

From beachside jerk barbecue to seafood dinners, guests of the Hyatt Zilara and Ziva Rose Hall hotels can certainly get their Caribbean food fix (Amira Arasteh)
From beachside jerk barbecue to seafood dinners, guests of the Hyatt Zilara and Ziva Rose Hall hotels can certainly get their Caribbean food fix (Amira Arasteh)

Whether you’re a guest or enjoying the frills of the adults-only Hyatt Zilara (or next door, family-friendly Ziva) Rose Hall, there’s, once again, plenty of good eats to be enjoyed. In terms of authentic Caribbean cooking, Jamaican RootZ by HoriZons serves up is an open-air restaurant on the beachfront at Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, with quick snack-style dishes, such as Jamaican patties and fish sandwiches, making excellent post-pool snacks for lunch.

Blue Grill at CalypZo at Hyatt Ziva (accessible from Hyatt Zilara via a short walk within the resorts) is another beachfront grill (because when the weather is this glorious, why eat inside?) serving up fresh seafood througout the day. Should guests wish to dine here for dinner, options from a seafood curry to a spicy shrimp salad satisfied both tummies and tastebuds among us. And if you really can’t bear to compromise on your tanning time, there is, of course, Barefoot JerkZ, where you can get your jerk fix from this traditional shack eatery. Whether you’re on the beach or by the pool, you can grab a plae of jerk chicken or pork, along with all the typical trimmings.

hyatt.com

Cooking Jamaican jerk

Chef Dextor says his first memory of jerk cooking was in his early childhood during a family visit to Portland (northeastern Jamaica). Offering an insight into his roots, he adds: “I often recall one year when we stopped at Boston Jerk centre, which was my introduction to jerk pork, it blew my taste buds into a frenzy, because it was spicy hot and beyond reasoning as a child but the flavour was just so appetising.

“That experience impacted my cooking career and helped me to understand the usefulness of various ingredients in cooking as well as the process of marinating, which is two-fold, to enhance not only flavours but also the texture of meats. Now, I experiment with various spices and herbs even in dressings, dips, pastries as a result of that experience and the techniques I’ve learnt from traditional jerk recipe.”

Jamaican jerk chicken recipe

If you’re looking to try your own Jamaican jerk chicken dinner at home, we’ve got Chef Dextor’s personal recipe for you. Obviously, a grill is probably more attainable than a fire pit, so it won’t quite be Scotchie’s – but it should still satisfy that craving.

Ingredients:

6kg chicken, bone-in and clean

6 green and white onions, cut into two-inch pieces

4 garlic cloves, minced

6 sprigs of thyme

6 scotch bonnet/hot peppers

0.25g ginger, minced

1 1/3 cup lime juice

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp allspice/pimento berries

18g vegetable oil

19g vinegar (to wash chicken)

4 tbsp brown sugar

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp cinnamon

Method:

1. Prepare chicken by removing excess fat, wash with vinegar and allow to drain.

2. Combine all ingredients except nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt and black pepper in a food processor and blend until mixture becomes smooth and without excess lumps.

4. Place the chicken in a container, lightly season with remaining dry ingredients (nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt and black pepper) and pour half of blended mixture over the chicken.

5. Allow it all to marinate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

5. Finish the chicken by placing it over a charcoal grill, cover and allow the smoke to penetrate the chicken, while continuously turning.

6. Use a kitchen brush to apply beer or chicken stock, as a means of keeping the chicken moist during the grilling process (optional).

7. For the sauce, combine the remaining blended marinade to the chicken stock and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.

8. Thicken with cornstarch to your desired consistency and add more pepper and season, to taste.

Head to Visit Jamaica’s website for more information on eating your way round the island.