The origins of some dishes get lost, muddled or forgotten. Not so with jerk. Slaves fleeing their British masters used it as a means of preserving and flavouring whatever meat they could capture as they hid out in the high forests of Jamaica. Since then jerk has come down from the Blue Mountains; its spicy, savoury smoke curls around every corner of Jamaica.
Recipes are handed down and around, borrowed and stolen, but at the heart of each is the balance between sweet and spice. They start with the berries of the allspice tree, known locally as pimenta, crushed to release their complex scent of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Ginger, garlic – not too much – and peppercorns bring a layer of warmth but jerk’s true heat comes from scotch bonnet peppers. Thyme, with its woody floral aroma, and scallions, white and green, complete Jamaica’s mirepoix.
Nigel Spence, a Jamaican chef in New York, might allow a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg, perhaps, but cloves are beyond the pale. He is also wary of soy sauce, favoured, he says, in commercial jerk sauces. Levi Roots, a British-Jamaican musician and sauce entrepreneur, uses honey but recoils at cumin. He also cautions against too long a marinade; the flavour of the meat should still be discernable.
The runaway slaves used wild boar, cooked in a barbeque pit. It was buried to hide the smoke from would-be captors. Today chicken, with its accommodating ability to take on other flavours, has become popular, and a half oil-drum by the side of the road is a plausible alternative to the pit. Unchanged is the use of the wood of the allspice tree, burned when it is still sweet and green to create both smoke, for flavour and char, and steam, to cook the meat while keeping it moist. Beyond Jamaica’s shores, a scattering of the berries across your charcoal can approximate – but never replicate – the aroma.
Jerk at its best is street food, both in the cooking and eating. It has spread to alleys and thoroughfares in Brooklyn and Brixton but it is most delicious devoured on a corner in Jamaica’s Boston Bay, after you’ve driven straight from the airport to the jerk joint, suitcase and all; the flavour of history and home.