No mild side to jerk chicken

Seasoned to make you sweat, spicy dish is among event's offerings


To Dawn Samuels, a native of western Jamaica, jerk chicken tastes like her island's unique mix of history and heat.

The slow-smoking technique dates back hundreds of years and the unmistakable blend of spices, including hot peppers, ginger and allspice, is designed to make a person sweat.

Jerk chicken is a quintessential eat-on-the-go food, especially in Jamaica. Perhaps 10 vendors, including Samuels' Baltimore restaurant, Caribbean Food Paradise, will be selling the dish this weekend at the Caribbean Carnival Festival in Druid Hill Park, said Elaine Simon, the festival's coordinator.

If you've ever tasted jerk chicken that was bland or mild, you haven't had real jerk chicken, Samuels said. "Back home we don't have mild jerk chicken," she said. "There's no such thing as mild jerk."

In the clean, quiet kitchen of Samuels' restaurant, before the doors have opened for the day, chef Bunny Grant shows what she means. His jerk seasoning for roughly 3 pounds of chicken includes two whole scotch bonnets, fiery seeds and all.

He starts with bone-in, skin-on chicken parts that have been cleaned in lime juice and vinegar, then frozen. Dark meat is more popular, he says.

With steady whacks of his cleaver, he chops about 3 pounds of the frozen meat into manageable pieces, then places them in a large bowl.

For the jerk seasoning - that complex yet elemental flavor that tastes of sunsets and palm trees and reggae - he starts with thyme, placing sprigs, stems and all, into a blender. Ginger goes in next, skin still on. "The strongest part of the ginger," Grant says. Then bay leaves. An onion, quartered. Pimento seeds, better known as allspice here in the United States. And the peppers.

A little water is poured in, the mixture is blended, then more seasonings are added. Grant shakes in generous doses of salt and granulated garlic. Sugar, nutmeg and paprika are next, then a swirl of burnt sugar, which comes in a jar and looks like molasses. And, finally, a ladleful of Walkerswood, a commercial jerk seasoning.

Grant dips in a finger, tastes, nods in satisfaction. He makes sure each piece of chicken is covered with the richly flavored sauce, then puts the bowl in the cooler, where it will sit overnight. The meat then is cooked on a grill over pimento wood or in an oven at low heat.

The flavors of jerk, especially the allspice in the marinade and the pimento wood on which the chicken is cooked over a low, smoky heat, date back to the 1600s and 1700s, said Virginia Burke, author of Eat Caribbean: The Best of Caribbean Cookery and a director of Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, a company that exports commercial jerk seasoning and other island flavors.

She remembers eating jerk chicken as a teen, going to where the jerk pit was and buying chicken by the pound. "We would drive miles to go and find it," she said. Nowadays, people make it at home, using commercial jerk blends or their own creations.

The Caribbean is a rich stew of cultures, and the food reflects that. Jamaica was colonized by Spaniards, then taken over by the British. The native people and African slaves who lived on the island also brought their own culinary traditions.

The distinctive jerk flavorings are believed to have been developed by the Maroons, freed African slaves who fled to the mountains when the English captured the island in 1670.

The Maroons hunted wild pigs for sustenance. They didn't have much salt to preserve their food, so they began creating a combination of spices using ingredients on hand, particularly the pimento tree that yields both the allspice and the wood that gives the meat its smoky flavor. The Maroons eventually won a treaty from the British to live freely in their own country, but they stayed in the mountains, according to Burke's book.

Burke, speaking by phone from Kingston, Jamaica, said the Maroons would cook pork and then bring it to the market to sell. They would cook the meat one of two ways: either by burying it under hot stones or putting it over pimento wood, she said.

The word "jerk," said Burke, is closely related to "jerky" in the United States, which refers to dried meat. But jerk pork or chicken isn't dry at all. The meat is moist and flavorful, and the villagers who purchased it in the local markets hundreds of years ago gobbled it up.

Nonetheless, Burke said, jerk didn't really take off in the United States - or Jamaica - until about 30 years ago, when companies such as Walkerswood began bottling and selling the flavors of the islands.

About that time, the shift was made from pork to chicken, she said, in large part because Rastafarians like reggae genius Bob Marley didn't eat pork. Nowadays, said Samuels, of Caribbean Food Paradise, hardly anyone eats jerk pork, though she will make it upon request for a catered event.

Samuels said jerk chicken is one of the most popular items in her restaurant, which also sells curried goat, oxtail stew and other traditional island fare.

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