Jerk refers to a way that a meat, be it chicken, beef, pork, goat, fish, vegetables or fruit is seasoned and cooked. This style comes from Jamaica. The typical cooking style uses a marinade or paste that includes at least pimento, which is often called allspice, and scotch bonnet peppers, also known as habenero. The meat is then marinated and slow smoked over pimento wood. Pimentia o pimento is a Spanish word for pepper and early European explorers mistook this for black pepper, so they called it pimento. According to
Pimento berries, also known as allspice
BBQing over a lattice of Pimento Wood probably similar to how the native Arawak indians did thousands of years ago.
What does the word Jerk come from?
According to most food history authorites, like Alan Davidson, and John Mariani jerk is a Spanish word that comes via the Peruvian word charqui, a word for dried strips of meat like what we call Jerky, in much of the world. The word started as a noun and then became a verb as in "Jerking" which meant to poke holes in the meat so the spices could permeate the meat. Jerk cooking experts like native Jamaican and author Helen Willinsky of "Jerk from Jamaica" says that the name Jerk also could have come from the turning of the meat in the marinade or from the way some folks will just jerk a strip from the roast on the BBQ. We just don't really know.
When did this style of cooking start?
Most historians agree Jamaica was settled by the Arawak indians over 2500 years ago from South America. They used similar techniques to smoke and dry meat in the sun or over a slow fire, that were common in Peru. This was important as the dried beef could be taken on journeys and eaten as is or chopped and reconstituted in boiling water. This ancient technique goes on today and is known as jerky.
In 1492 Columbus claimed it for Spain and enslaved the Arawak indians. Soon they died and were replaced by African slaves.
Columbus meeting the Arawak Indians
In the 1700's some of the slaves escaped and hid in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and became known as Maroons, They had to keep watch closely to evade the British army from recapture.
With food in short supply the learned to catch wild boars in the forest. Using salt , peppers and spices they learned to preserve the meat. They knew not when their next kill would be.
The meat was spiced and wrapped in leaves to keep. When it came time to cook it they just placed it all in with hot rocks then covered or it was BBqued over a lattice of wood as shown above.
This evolved with the use of different spices to the cooking style that we know today as Jerk.
Jamaican Maroons wait to ambush an approaching British military column circa 1795 (image: picture by J. Bourgoin, courtesy of The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities)
50 gallon drum barrels that are cut in half to make a smoker,
often painted in traditional Jamaican colors.
Jerk "huts" are all over the Caribbean Islands, and you can find them by the lovely smell.
Many times they are shacks that are octaganal or circular built around a telephone pole to support the thatched roof. Dining is outside, as well as the cooking of the food.
These days there are lots of Jamaica vacation deals online for the avid Jerk lover, making it more affordable than ever to take a trip to the islands and experience the local flavor of authentic Jamaican Jerk.
Helen Willinsky writes, often times jerk huts are found in clusters...... and the vendors will shout, "come and taste my jerk chicken , it is better than the last time I saw you "
Below is a video of a Jerk hut,
See the ladies hard at work at "Country Style Cooking", in the famous Faith's Pen rest stop in St. Ann, Jamaica. The video shows baisting fish, slicing breadfruit and chopping Jerk Pork.
Walkers Wood Jerk Seasoning from
a small town above Ocho Rios, Jamaica
See Jamaican chef John Bull use it in the video below
Walkerswood is the Jamaican Jerk sauce by which all others are measured.
Be adventurous and take your tastebuds on an island tour. For jerk aficionados, Walkerswood, Jamaica, is Mecca.
The tiny village perched above Ocho Rios is home to Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, a small production facility wrapped in the pungent aroma of black pepper, scallions and Scotch Bonnet peppers. Jerk is a hot, spicy, uniquely Jamaican seasoning developed over centuries.
I received "Jerk from Jamaica" in the mail on Saturday, and my husband and I couldn't resist planning a feast for the next day. Already I'm singing the praises of this book, and I just can't get enough of the leftovers.
Helen Willinsky grew up in Jamaica, studied cooking in Europe, and ran a resort in Jamaica; she includes family recipes, traditional recipes, and recipes that blend older Jamaican elements with newer ingredients and traditions.
I have tried at least 10 of the receipes in this book and find it very hard to move on to others. The ones that I have tried are always repeated in some cases many times over. The Dry Jerk seasoning is a staple which I have prepared and given as gifts in fancy found jars (page 16).