If your previous experience sampling jerk was being served a desiccated piece of chicken at an American big city street fair, then you’re in for a huge surprise when you go to the source. In Jamaica, jerk is elevated to a craft.
To start appreciating the island nation’s foremost contribution to Caribbean cuisine, it first takes getting used to the permutations of the word: jerk is used not only as a noun but a verb. It is at once the seasoning or sauce that meats are marinated in, as well as the action of grilling (while turning, or "jerking") meats directly over planks of pimento wood. In either sense of the word, the secret to good jerk lies in, well, the secrets that each purveyor brings to their creation.
"You’ll find as you go to different regions of Jamaica, people will tell you that their jerk sauce or marination is the best," said Dennis McIntosh, executive chef at The Cardiff Hotel & Spa. "But the main components are two things: a manner of cooking and a combination of ingredients that gives us this unique taste profile."
At The Cardiff in Runaway Bay on Jamaica’s north coast, McIntosh uses roughly a half-dozen primary ingredients as seasoning. In a recent demonstration of how to jerk fish that he later cooked in foil, he filled small bowls with crushed pimento (the unripened fruit of the pimento tree, better known as allspice), Scotch bonnet peppers (use with caution — they’re off the charts on the Scoville scale), fresh thyme, scallion, ginger, onions, and garlic.
After slicing and crushing his ingredients and combining them into one large bowl, he added cinnamon powder, a touch of nutmeg, olive oil (coconut is suitable as well), soy, salt, and hints of sugar. Ultimately, the combinations created a paste that he rubbed on the snapper fillets. At the end of his demo, sampling chef McIntosh’s freshly jerked snapper was to savor the fish in a new light and to recognize the versatility of a culinary technique outsiders too often assume is just used on ubiquitous chicken.
Besides poultry and seafood, you can jerk pork, beef, and absolutely anything from fruits to veggies. With fresh ingredients available island-wide at the drop of a Rasta hat, you could even jerk your car if you were so inclined.
Various theories are floated as to the origin of the term "jerk." Perhaps it comes from charqui, a term for dried meat in Spanish lands. Then again, maybe it’s a Taino word, for it was Jamaica’s indigenous tribe who first combined local spices and preserved meats via jerking. Either way, it was the Maroons, or escaped slaves, who carried it on in their mountain sanctuaries with the slow cooking of boar over pimento wood.
At the Sun Valley Plantation off the road from Ocho Rios to Oracabessa, spry, sexagenarian coconut farmer Lorna Binns gives 90-minute tours of her family’s grounds. The farm grows myriad varieties of trees and bushes whose fruits and seeds go into Jamaican jerk and cuisine in general. In her thorough tutorial on Jamaican essential foods, from ackee and Scotch bonnet peppers to lychees (like many fruits brought from Asia by the British) and all manner of spices used for medicinal purposes, saucy Binns throws in wives’ tales like the one about males avoiding papaya for fear of impotence. ($12 tour includes tasting fruits and punches; for reservations, call (876) 446-2026).
In the event that you don’t have a pimento tree in your backyard for jerking meats yourself (a good thing perhaps, as a proper jerk joint can smell like a campfire), jerk flavoring is thankfully easily obtainable. Shortly before the road from Kingston to Ocho Rios descends into the densely wooded Fern Gully pass, you pass through the hill town of Walkerswood in St. Ann parish, where arguably the country’s best jerk marinades, as well as hot sauces and condiments, are produced at Walkerswood Caribbean Foods.
To sample the best jerk on the island, The Daily Meal set out on a weekend jerk tour of Jamaica. Starting in Kingston in the southeast and heading counterclockwise along the northern coast, the tour stops at iconic spots in Kingston, Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, Discovery Bay, Montego Bay, and Negril.
For those who want to recreate the tour at home, try these Jamaican jerk recipes. To take the bite out of a spicy jerk dish, one couldn’t do better than recreating Raymond’s rum punch, made by scratch from a personal recipe by The Cardiff Hotel bartender Raymond. Mixing dashes of pineapple and lime juices, strawberry syrup, and Angostura bitters, which he pours into a mix of Galleon and Appleton rum brands, as well as overproof rum, Raymond adds cinnamon powder and nutmeg and lets it sit in the fridge for one day. As to the exact proportions, Raymond doesn’t say. Like proper jerk itself, some things are best left a secret.