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KINGSTON, JAMAICA—The sweet smell of smoked meat and charred wood permeates the air while juices from intricately spice-rubbed and slow-cooked chicken drip down my arm. With sundown nearly upon us, nearby tables begin to fill quickly with diners absorbed in a similar enterprise — sharing hefty portions of exceptional take-out fare that has been prepared with great patience, care and dedication.
We are digging into the first of many Jerk-filled meals to come over the next few days, beginning at Sweetwood Jerk Centre, in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica. This open-air Jerk eatery is a hopping place with locals and visitors alike, and with very good reason, for their Jerk pork is the best I’ve ever sampled. As the name reveals, they cook their best-selling Jerk chicken and pork over sweetwood logs, along with their Jerk sausage and lamb, roasted breadfruit, and vats of Manish Water — think, goat’s head soup and vegetables in a rich broth. Conveniently, it is directly across from Emancipation Park, which is ideal for a leisurely stroll or jog around the park’s track after a gut-busting meal.
As ubiquitous in Jamaica as reggae music, Blue Mountain coffee and rum punch, Jerk can be found almost everywhere and at most anytime — from roadside stands to high-end restaurants. This is partially because, due to the complex and lengthy preparation and cooking technique, Jerk is not often attempted at home.
To assist with visitors seeking to navigate their way through the wonderful world of local Jerk cuisine, the Jamaica Jerk Trail helps act as a guide. From Negril in the west to Port Antonio in the east, travel, taste and sample from as many Jerk joints along the way as you can manage. Follow the route, or go off the beaten path, blazing your own Jamaican Jerk trail. Either way, you’re sure to find plenty of the two favourite menu items — Jerk chicken and Jerk pork — and you’ll likely also encounter a variety of other Jerk offerings, including Jerk fish, sausage, lobster, lamb, goat, rabbit and conch. If you have room, and to help cool the Jamaican Scotch bonnet pepper heat, include a side dish or two of roasted or fried breadfruit, rice and peas (rice and kidney beans cooked in coconut milk), corn, roasted yam or plantain, and festival — like sweetened hush puppies. Dine outdoors, enjoy the ambiance, and wash it all down with a chilled Red Stripe, malta, or fresh coconut water.
Day 2: If you ask locals where the best spot is for visitors to experience Jerk, the response is likely to be Scotchies. There are Scotchies locations in both Montego Bay and Kingston, plus Scotchies Too near Ocho Rios, where we visited, and a fourth location opening soon in Belize. Scotchies uses a duo dry rub plus wet seasoning to marinate their meats, then slow cooks over both pimento and sweetwood logs, culminating in a unique and distinctive flavour that has helped make Scotchies the ever popular and expanding Jerk eatery it is today. Chicken and pork are chopped to order and come simply served on a sheet of tin foil. I highly recommend the chicken, and for heat-seekers, their Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce for dipping. It’s the best I’ve had.
Day 3: Also near Ocho Rios, Cardiff Hotel & Spa in Runaway Bay is worth veering off the Jerk Trail for a visit. Come for the outstanding scenery and ambiance, and stay for the luxe accommodations and outstanding Jamaican fusion cuisine — think, Mac ‘n Cheese with Braised Oxtail, and Crispy Calamari with Jerk Remoulade. This is the culinary vision of Dennis McIntosh, both Executive Chef at the hotel and chairman of the Culinary Federation of Jamaica. Along with being a seasoned and well-travelled chef, mentor to young local chef apprentices, and a passionate promoter of Jamaican cuisine, he knows his Jerk, as observed at a recent Jerk 101 cooking demo.
“Jerk is two things,” says Chef McIntosh. “It’s a method of cooking, and it’s a combination of ingredients, which together gives it its unique taste profile.” Chef McIntosh goes on to explain that the two main components of Jerk seasoning are pimento (otherwise known as allspice) and the Scotch bonnet — one of the hottest chile peppers in the world. Other key ingredients include, fresh thyme, scallions (green onions), ginger, garlic, salt and pepper, while varying amounts of customized add-ins may include rum, cinnamon, nutmeg, soy sauce, coconut oil, sugar, and onions. Blended into a paste, meats are then either dry-rubbed or wet marinated overnight before cooking.
Seasonings aside, it isn’t true Jerk unless it’s slow cooked and smoked over an aromatic wood — usually pimento wood, along with its berries and leaves, or sometimes sweetwood . . . or a combination of the two. Covered, flattened chickens might take upwards of 2 ½ hours to slowly smoke and cook over pimento charcoal and logs, while boneless side of porks will take around four hours.
Generally speaking, the heat derived from Jerk spicing will be lively and lip-tingling, but it isn’t necessary for it to be five-alarm hot. It’s a misconception to think Jerk is all about being as fiery as your tolerance for spice can stand, when truly, the experience should be about the complex combination and proportions of fresh, local ingredients.
Chef McIntosh waxes nostalgic when asked what Jamaican Jerk means to him. “The balance and complexity of its flavour profile is really quite unique . . . it is something that just speaks to Jamaica. It just evokes memories of the island and the vibrancy of the colours.”
ORIGINS OF JERK
Though precise origins are somewhat debatable, it’s generally accepted that the grilling of meat — originally pork or boar — over pimento wood first began in Jamaica with the Taino Indians.
Later, in the 17th century, the Maroons — former slaves who escaped Jamaica’s British-owned plantations and fled into the hills and forest — introduced a highly spiced seasoning from a mélange of ingredients, both local and those introduced to the island by settlers.
The Maroons also first began the technique of cooking in covered pits, in an effort to hide telltale smoke an open fire would give off. This combination of low heat and smoke-contained cooking allowed flavours of the wood to permeate while keeping meat moist.
Thought to derive from the Spanish charqui, or dried meat, the word Jerk is a result of this intermingling of different cultures, ingredients and techniques. Chicken was much later introduced to appeal to those who choose not to eat pork. The two meats are always cooked in separate areas.
JUST THE FACTS
TOURING For transportation services for visitors and tour guides, contact a Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) approved outfit, such as Jamaica Cooperative Automobile & Limousine Tours Ltd (JCAL) at jcaltours.com, Maxi Tours (maxitoursja.com) or the Jamaica Union of Travelers Association (JUTA) at jutatours.info
DINING Sweetwood Jerk Joint: 78 Knutsford Blvd, Kingston. 876-906-4854. Scotchies Too: Drax Hall (near Ocho Rios). 876-794-9457.
SLEEPING The Spanish Court Hotel has rooms from $ 190. 1 St. Lucia Ave., Kingston, 876-926-0000. spanishcourthotel.com. The Cardiff Hotel & Spa in Runaway Bay, St. Ann is 15 minutes from Scotchies Tooand has rooms from about $ 130. 876-973-6671, thecardiffhotel.com
WEB SURFING jamaicajerktrail.com, visitjamaica.com