Is it Jerk?

Everyone seems to have "JERK" on their menu these days, reflecting the popularity of jerk and Jamaican culture. From fine dining to fast casual to your hole-in-the-wall Jamaican restaurant with a charcoal grill in the back yard, everyone is selling jerk. However, as we all know, all jerks (in the kitchen and in life) are not created equal.

So what is jerk?

Jerk has been described by many, as one of the World's true great culinary delights. I agree!

Jerk is Jamaican BBQ. The word jerk refers to the seasoning blend (wet or dry rub), the cooking method, and to the meat, poultry, seafood, and even vegetables that have been treated to the jerk seasoning and cooking processes (jerk pork and jerk chicken are the most popular items). The resulting food yields a spicy-sweet smoked flavor and a tender texture that is out of this world.

The seasoning blend varies significantly from restaurant to restaurant and pit master to grill novice, but the two key ingredients are scotch bonnet peppers and ground allspice (pimento). So, no badda call it jerk if it no hav dem two ingredients deh! Other popular ingredients are scallions, cooking oil, salt, black pepper, nutmeg, sugar, thyme, lime juice, soy sauce.

The cooking method varies significantly from restaurant to restaurant and pit master to grill novice, but the one key ingredient is a charcoal fire. So, no badda call it jerk if it no cook under, over or beside charcoal fire! Yeah, I'm talking to you folks cooking jerk in the oven, on a gas grill, in a pellet cooker, electric smoker or Southern Pride/Fast Eddy type smoker. The most authentic jerk uses charcoal made from pimento wood and a cooking grate made from small green pimento branches rather than iron or steel. Unfortunately these materials are not available for most of us. You can improvise a bit by making a foil smoke pouch of allspice berries or leaves.

As a jerk pit master always looking to learn, I typically try jerk and other forms of BBQ wherever I go - London, New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Cincinnati, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Malaysia, Nassau, Bahama Breeze, Golden Krust, Island Grill, Jerk Hut and Disney, Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and jerk and pan chicken all over the island of Jamaica (Portland, Boston, Mandeville, Ocho Rios, Kingston, Spice Grove, Negril, Montego Bay, and more).

Here are a few of my findings:

  1. Jerk chicken tastes better chopped into bite sized pieces. Don't ask me why.
  2. Great flavor is seasoned and cooked in, not added after.
  3. If it is served with jerk gravy, order something else.
  4. Gravy and BBQ sauce should be optional and only compliment the flavors, not be the key source of flavor.
  5. I've yet to find an acceptable boneless, skinless jerk chicken breast (the most popular method on mainstream menus). Please leave the skin on.
  6. Many restaurants, especially Jamaican owned, hide their seasoning or cooking method deficiencies with excess pepper. Who can taste anything when dem mouth bun off? My philosophy is "You can add heat, but your can't take it away. So keep the bottle of scotch bonnet pepper sauce on the side."
  7. Many cuts of pork require a longer cooking time and skill than many cooks are willing to invest or possess. So many parboil and then finish on the grill. Yuk! Simply take the time to slow smoke or butterfly the meat such that it takes less time to cook.
  8. You can jerk more than just chicken and pork. See one of my earlier posts.
  9. Jerk is by far the best BBQ flavor profile.
  10. Even "Jerk" entrees not prepared with the right seasoning or cooked the right way, can taste really, really good. But they are not "JERK." Enjoy them anyway.
This linked joke will give you an idea of the diversity of jerk cuisine on the market. CK Jerk Shack Gourmet Island BBQ is more like "Plate #8".

Eat jerk. Be happy, mon!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to read a "fi real" article
for a change.
Funny and tells it like it is.

-Spice Grove expatriate in NYC-