If you subscribe to food magazines or food blogs, you’ve probably seen a recipe or two of Jamaican jerk chicken or pork. This mix of seasoning comes to us courtesy of a British invasion and the flight of African slaves. As the story goes, when the British took over Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, the Spanish colonists fled the island leaving their plantations and slave workers behind.
But the Africans weren’t keen on staying slaves so they escaped into the mountains, hiding from the British (who were just as likely to keep slaves as the Spanish) and intermarrying with the native Jamaicans already in hiding. From this marriage of expediency, African and Caribbean food traditions merged to create a many-spiced dry rub used to season meats called jerky. The word is believed to have its roots in the process used to season and dry meats (what our American cowboys called “jerky”) but was also applied to the fresh meat dish that used the same seasoning mix and was cooked over an open fire.
There are probably as many recipes for jerk seasoning as there are Jamaican cooks but just about all have two things in common: a sweet flavor provided by at least one hard, tropic spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice) and a fiery note from chilies, such as cayenne, Scotch bonnet, or other “burn your mouth” chilies. The original, native jerky probably used allspice since this is native to the islands. Cinnamon and cloves would have been expensive imports from Asia before the 19th century. Viable nutmeg seeds were smuggled out of Indonesia in the 17th century to establish plantations in French Antilles to the south of Jamaica and would have eventually been added to the mix.
Today’s Jamaican jerk chicken or pork has a decidedly cosmopolitan flavor. I did a survey of recipes on the Internet and saw recipes ranging from very mild to very wild. From my browsing, I picked the five most likely recipes and placed them side-by-side to see what was the same and what varied. The result is the recipe below. I have created a base recipe of eight essential ingredients. But since this is a folk recipe, there is no one true recipe. The mix can be as unique as the cook. So get creative and make your own jerk seasoning. Barbecue, anyone?
- ½ cup onion powder
- 2 tablespoon salt
- ¼ cup garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons ground cloves
- ¼ cup thyme leaves
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon chili pepper, your choice of hotness
- Mix jerk seasoning together in a small bowl. Clean and pat dry 6-8 pieces chicken. Lightly oil meat surface and then rub on Jamaican jerk mix. Allow to set for 10-15 minutes before baking or grilling.