Today there is little similarity between Jamaican Jerk and what we think of as jerky, but long ago on the islands of the Caribbean, meat was seasoned with peppers and spices and hung over fires to cook slowly. This process of drying meat is thought to be the origin of modern barbecues. The fire, made from green wood, usually pimento wood, wasn't really there to cook the meat as much as it was used to keep insects away and to “smoke” the meat. The smoking process preserved the meat allowing it to be stored for long periods of time. Today we think of Jerk as a seasoning or sauce used to add flavor and spice to dishes that are typically grilled.
When Jerk Cooking Was Perfected
Jerk cooking was perfected during a series of guerrilla wars against the British during the 18th and 19th centuries. Soldiers fighting for independence living in the remote mountain regions were forced to eat what they could find. What they found were chili peppers, spices, and wild game. The strong spices and peppers overcame their lack of cooking skills and improvised cooking equipment. In the years since Jerk has become a well-known cooking tradition. While there is no one recipe for jerk seasoning the basic ingredients are chilies, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, garlic, and onions. This gives jerk its distinctive, hot and savory flavor. Basically, any combination that includes the peppers, garlic, onion and some spices could be considered Jerk. To truly be Jerk, however, it needs the combination between the chilies and savory spices like allspice or cloves. While we know a lot of you probably think these spices are better suited to Holiday baking, they are what gives this seasoning its Jerk flavor.
By combining the ingredients with oil and vinegar, it will produce a fantastic Jerk marinade. Add to tomato sauce and you have a Jerk barbecue sauce. Jerk seasoning can be combined with other ingredients to form a serving sauce, a mop, or a wet rub. It’s really up to you. While the above ingredients will produce Jerk, they are not the only ingredients that find their way into Jerk seasonings and sauces. In addition, you can add brown sugar, green onions, soy sauce, lime and/or orange juice, rum, bay leaves and black pepper. We almost never prepare a Jerk sauce without adding some good dark rum. It gives it a really great flavor and an excuse to have some rum later. After all, rum is the national drink of Jamaica.
Before we go any further we should tell you all little more about the chili peppers. Traditionally, the pepper of choice is the Scotch Bonnet. This particularly powerful pepper grows throughout the Caribbean and is a particular favorite of anyone who really loves hot peppers. They are small, red or orange, wrinkly and really, really hot. In fact, they are among the hottest peppers you can buy. If you do locate some of these peppers treat them with the respect they deserve and by that, we suggest treating them like nuclear fuel. Wear gloves and keep them away from your eyes. If you can’t find Scotch Bonnet peppers ask your local grocer for the hottest peppers they have. It is always best to make your Jerk with fresh peppers unless you are putting together a dry rub.
It is a perfect seasoning for anything you want to make. You can marinate, rub, or baste with your Jerk preparation. And one more hint, serve your Jerk foods with side dishes high in starch or acid. These will help cool off the tongue and keep you and your guests from suffering unduly.