If someone walks up to you and calls out, “Jerk!” you could easily reply, “Why yes, I’d love some!”
The Caribbean’s most famous contribution to North American cuisine is arguably Jamaican jerk. Jerk is a method of cooking meat, usually chicken or pork, that is rubbed with a spice paste and grilled over barbecues made from steel drums cut in half. Jerk seasoning is commonly available as a thick paste but also turns up as dry spice, liquid marinade, or barbecue sauce. You can find it in the form of steak sauce, wing sauce, salsa, snack foods, and hot sauce with a touch of jerk seasoning.
Scotch bonnet peppers give jerk its fiery heat and allspice contributes that characteristic taste and aroma. Other ingredients include green onions, thyme, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, salt, and pepper. The most common brands are Busha Browne, Walkerswood, and Grace, but there are many lessor known domestic and imported producers. Each brand has it’s own twist and every cook has a secret recipe which can hit you with anything from the heady scent of spices to a blast of peppery heat. Traditionally, bold, aromatic ingredients that grew in abundance on the Caribbean islands were used to season poor, gamey cuts of meat that were given to slaves by their European masters. Today, as then, it's all about using the bounty of the Caribbean’s sunbathed ingredients to give flavour to otherwise meek and mild meats, fish, even tofu and starchy vegetables.
Of the brands we've tried, we find Busha Browne to be the least salty paste rub, allowing the flavour of the spices to come through. Walkerswood is a close second and Grace packs a wallop of over-the-top heat. Chetty's Jerk Sauce and Hurricane Bay Jerk Marinade offer milder heat with plenty of jerk flavour. The Epicentre makes a terrific dry jerk blend from herbs and spices that they have custom milled for them.
If you’re planning a traditional jerked meal, be sure to including great sides: slaw, rice & pigeon peas (beans), roasted yam or sweet potato, grilled pineapple, and fried plantain or yucca chips. Everything you need is often available locally so you can get jerked around anytime you like!
by Anna Russell, originally published in Good Food Magazine