Jamaican Jerk – succulent barbequed meat – rubbed in a savoury, spicy paste and turned over fragrant hardwood coals is central to the food culture in Jamaica. Ishay Govender-Ypma takes a big bite….Written for taste magazine, October 2017.
“I DON’T EAT IT, but I’ll jerk it for the people,” Nikuma Carl smiles. As the principle farmer, he runs Life Yard, Kingston’s first urban eco-village, a skinny functional garden, juice bar and after-care hub for school children in Parade Gardens, one of its most impoverished neighbourhoods (called “projects”). A Rastafari man, he adheres strictly to the I-tal diet, which is plant-based and contains no salt, unless naturally occurring. But jerk in Jamaica is undeniably popular, so in the afternoons and on weekends, Carl will light the grill fashioned from a spilt metal drum, baste chicken with a piquant jerk rub and “jerk” it over a fire. Traditionally jerk meats are grilled over fragrant pimento, the same tree from which Jamaican allspice is derived, but availability had become scarce. Within this ribbon of joy created by Life Yard, in a neighbourhood that sees its share of violence and neglect, bright murals adorn the zinc fence and neighbouring walls and judgement about eating habits, and most life choices, are left at the gate. Jerk, the quotidian aroma of which wafts tantalisingly throughout the Caribbean, is used freely as noun, adjective and verb, I learn. And, handily, it refers to the seasoning, grilling technique and scrumptious end–product.
Jerk It Like It’s Hot
Boston Bay, on the east end of the island is known as the home of Jamaican jerk, but I start my journey in the cultural and capital city, Kingston. In fact, many visiting from the U.S will fly directly to the beach resort town of Montego Bay and avoid Kingston, with its grit, clamour, rambunctious street dance parties and the relentless hustle. Karen Hutchinson, founder and lead guide at Jamaica Cultural Enterprises takes me on a two-day private tour, familiarising me with the history of the first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians who arrived from South America 2500-years-ago and were wiped out over time by the Spanish, British colonial rule and slavery, Bob Marley’s enduring legacy, the fight for emancipation, and the classic local dishes. Aptly, the Arawak had christened the country Xaymaka – the land of food and water.
While Karen pulls her car into a busy parking lot, I concede readily, that it would be tough to find Scotchies Jerk Centre [name withdrawn from establishment at time of publication]. She shrugs and admits to never using Google maps. Scotchies lies hidden behind the car park, and the street signage is AWOL. True to all jerk huts or centres, as they are called, the formula is simple – order and pay, take your slip to a “jerk man” or “jerk woman” and wait for your number to be announced. I am the only foreigner here; locals in business suits go about the daily praxis of enjoying jerk for lunch. This is the Jamaica I dreamt of, I blurt out to Hutchinson who casts a rueful side-eye my way. We sit in the shade under a rustic thatch umbrella and descend over our Edenic bounty: polystyrene containers of fiery jerk pork, jerk chicken and breadkind. The latter is a catch-all term for starchy foods like dense breadfruit which is roasted, yams, Johnny cakes (dumplings), hardough bread (a sweeter Pullman-style loaf), boiled plantains, bammy (flatbread made from cassava) and sweet fried cornbread called festival – which locals charmingly drag out in pronunciation: fest-ee-vahl. Jerk is always paired with a bland or slightly sweetened starch to temper the heat. Naturally, your fingers (and a wad of serviettes) are all the tools you need for the job.
The Essence of Jerk
Chef Helen Willinsky, credited as the first to bring bottled jerk spices to the U.S market, and author of the 1990 cookbook Jerk from Jamaica – Barbecue Caribbean Style [Random House Penguin] mentions in her book that she’s often asked about the origin of the word jerk. One theory, she shares, is that it’s related to the Incan word charqui, which means dried meat (jerky) and Spanish sailors drew parallels between the Indians’ food in Jamaica and Peru. Another version, according to Willinsky, is that turning or “jerking” the meat repeatedly on the grill or the act of cleaving off chunks for hungry eaters, lent jerk its name. Some date jerk to the 17th century when escaped African slaves (the Maroons), in exile in the mountains, rubbed wild pig meat with herbs, spices and salt to preserve it – like jerky. “To me, it does not matter what it is called, or why. What counts is flavor [this spelling used in the book]. The spices that are used in jerk seasoning have a special pungency,” she shares.
Willinsky sets out that there’s a difference between spicy and hot, and jerk can be both. Jerk seasoning contains a combination of Jamaican spices like local allspice and thyme, nutmeg, scotch bonnet peppers, and what Kingstonite Diana O’Gilvie, a blogger and content marketing specialist, calls: “a laundry list of seasonings.” And don’t forget the garlic or ginger, onions and spring onions, many cooks will tell you. O’Gilvie adds: “You’d have to twist arms to get locals to reveal their secret jerk sauce recipes.” Today, commercial jerk sauces, rubs and pastes are readily available at stores in and outside Jamaica. Sean Garbutt, marketing manager of Walkerswood, which started as a community project in Walkerswood, St Ann, outside Ocho Rios (two hours from Kingston) says that a bottled product also offers consistency to the Jamaican diaspora who can’t always obtain the ingredients needed to make jerk seasonings. The scotch bonnet peppers used by Walkerswood are sourced solely from the farmers’ cooperative in the town.
Lauded chef Gariel Ferguson [see Gariel’s Easy Jerk Rub], who owns The Rib Kage Bar & Grill in Kingston and began his career in food as a teenager, offers a philosophical view on jerk: “Jerk is a combination of tradition, technique and spices. It’s a culmination of the elements that define us as a nation.” For Ferguson, jerk is about creating harmony: “It’s about the pimento and the pepper elder and wild cinnamon along with the fresh aromatics and herbs. It’s the painstaking process of marinating, resting and slow-cooking over pimento wood, to perfection.” To cool the burn of jerk, on a blistering afternoon, we order a bucket of ice-cold Red Stripe beers and fresh coconut water, sipped from the nut with a straw. Following the cue of a local sitting next to me, I learn that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the coconut seller to crack the coconut open when you’re done, so that you can enjoy what’s called the “jelly” – the sweet, tender, unripe flesh. It’s one way to soothe a mouth on fire.
Smoke and Flames
Garbutt mentions that the love of spicy foods and cooking over fire are two of many cultural similarities between South Africa and Jamaica. “My friends and I gather regularly, and the main attraction is the grill, with everyone bringing something to cook and to have friendly competition.” Driving around the country from Kingston to the Blue Mountains, Ocho Rios, Negril and Montego Bay, the familiar, intoxicating aroma of jerk from roadside shacks and street vendors selling “pan chicken” – roasted chicken with jerk sauce, invites us to take several taste-test breaks. Before we check in to our final destination, a resort in Montego Bay, we lunch on jerk pork and their speciality grilled wings at The Pork Pit with busloads of locals, and tourists escaping the predictable hotel Caesar salad. I leave suffused with elation, and smoke that cloaks both clothes and hair.
According to O’Gilvie, it’s not jerk if it’s not smoked with pimento or sweetwood. A combination of hardwood coals and sheets of pimento leaves or pimento wood, or even Pimora, a briquette that creates the essential Jamaican pimento smoke, is used. Tree branches or a sheet of zinc metal is placed over the roasting, well-rested meats – thick cuts like pork (unless butterflied) are cooked long and slow over a low flame; chicken and fish are grilled over a higher flame for a shorter period. Sometimes meat is jerked in an underground pit on low-burning embers for the entire day. If you ask Jamaicans who makes the best jerk, Ferguson adds, you’ll find yourself in a spirited, animated discussion. O’Gilvie explains: “Every party I’ve been to has jerk chicken or jerk pork. It’s in our DNA. You can’t have Jamaica without jerk.”
VISAS: South Africans do not need a visa to travel to Jamaica
VACCINES: Hepatitis A & B booster shots and a yellow fever certificate are advisable. Do apply mosquito repellent and cover up during high-risk seasons and follow the directives from your hotel re Zika.
TOURS: Book various cultural tours with Jamaica Cultural Enterprises: www.jaculture.com/tours
MARIJUANA: While used widely, it is not legal to purchase, so don’t force locals to “take you to their dealer”. Sure enough, it will be offered to you. Exercise caution.
You’ll find gorgeous, succulent jerk from small stands across the country. Because places open and close erratically (even the long-standing ones), your best bet is to ask a local for recommendations.
The Rib Kage Grill & Bar, Kingston
12 Braemar Ave,
Sweetwood Jerk Joint, Kingston
78 Knutsford Boulevard, +1 876-906-4854
The Pork Pit, Montego Bay
27 Gloucester Ave, Miranda Hill,
3 Dives, Negril
West End Road/just west of Extabi | West End,
Pushcart Restaurant & Bar, Negril (upmarket)
Pirates Cave | Rockhouse Hotel
Chef Gariel’s Easy Jamaican Jerk Rub
450g spring onions, chopped (including stalks)
80g fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup chopped ginger
3 tablespoon salt or add to your taste
1/4 cup allspice berries or Jamaican pimento
1 or 2 whole scotch bonnet or habanero chilli pepper
2 tablespoon cinnamon, ground
2 tsp nutmeg
Place everything in a food processor and puree until it forms a paste.
Gariel adds: use as a rub on chicken, pork, lamb or beef. If you want to use it on fish and seafood leave out the ginger and add some lime zest to cut the fishy taste.