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Jerk chicken

"Jerk is freedom manifested in food.” Gariel Ferguson

Having discovered a new 'family fave' as one member of my family said, I thought I should do a piece on real jerk chicken. For let's face it, however good Robert Carrier is - and his recipe is pretty authentic - nevertheless I can never be truly authentic because the real thing is that the chicken should be cooked over charcoal, flavoured, if that 's the right word with the wood from the pimento (allspice) tree. Which I don't think you are going to find anytime soon around here. Indeed somebody said that it's just not available here, though you can buy it

The nearest advice as to how to replicate this comes from J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats in the US who recommends adding a stack of soaked bay leaves and allspice berries to the charcoal in your Weber. The end result - his (or her?) Spicy grilled jerk chicken is shown below. But it's a bit of a faff really. Still there are detailed instructions and pictures as to how to do it.

So a little bit of history. Once upon a time - some 2500 years ago the Arawak tribe who originated in South America settled in Jamaica which they called Xaymaca which means 'land of wood and water'. They had a method of cooking meat - mostly what they caught - wild boar and goats - which was to slowly roast and dry it over a smoky fire. This produced a dried meat that would see them through the times when there was no meat.

Christopher Columbus met with them when he landed in the Caribbean and over the next few years, as the Spanish gradually took over, they were decimated by disease and poor treatment. In fact the native tribes were so decimated that African slaves had to be brought in to replace them.

However, some survived and retreated to the mountains where eventually they were joined by runaway slaves who called themselves Maroons. There were two or three 'wars' between the Maroons and the colonists, and whilst the Maroons were hiding in the mountains they cooked their meat in pits wrapped in leaves, so that the smoke would not give their position away. The method of cooking they borrowed from the Arawaks (Tainos) which they blended with their love of spice with them. This was the beginning of jerk.

Eventually they were allowed to live in the mountains with their main settlement being Trelawney Town. I have probably got some of this wrong, but have a look at the Smithsonian website because they have quite comprehensive article called A brief history of Jamaican jerk culture by Vaughn Stafford Gray

"To feed themselves in the face of adversity, the Maroons had to hunt, prepare, preserve, transport, nourish and sustain while always on the move—often for decades."

Which is where the 'freedom manifested in food' concept comes from.

So what about the name - jerk - which David thinks is it's most unattractive feature. Well 'jerk' does have some negative associations of course. If you really want to know all about those meanings then turn to Grammarphobia which has a very long and very detailed history of the word in all its guises - fundamentally it was a word that sounded like what it was - to strike or lash with a whip. And it evolved through the meaning of sudden action into all those negative and slangy meanings that we know today.

The food name however comes from a totally different source - from Peru and the Incas initially, and the word charqui which means dried strips of meat and the verb derived from it which meant to dry meat. The Spanish changed it slightly and took it back to Spain and then it returned and evolved into jerk and jerky - the dried beef that you find in South Africa. The verb to jerk in the food sense also means to poke holes in the meat to tenderise it.

The combination of spices found in the jerk rubs and marinades derive from the native plants - the allspice - which is absolutely crucial, and the hot chilli (we of course had a very mild version), with other spices from Africa - cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, garlic - well I may be getting confused here. Maybe the garlic came from the Spanish. And the soy sauce - which is almost always included in the recipe - comes from the Chinese who came to Jamaica to work as indentured labour after slavery was abolished. It's one of those dishes whose components are rooted in historical events. Or as Robert Carrier says in his introduction to Great Dishes of the World:

"The history of every nation lies visible on its table. Its wars and victories, its occupation in defeat, the marriages of its kings, its religion, its overseas empires - all have left behind them a dish or two destined to be adopted into the national life."

And it does seem to be part of the Jamaican psyche. I can't tell you how many writers that I came across spoke of the distinctive smell of the jerk chicken cooking in the streets in barbecues improvised from oil drums. To them this was Jamaica.

And so it is one of those dishes that people get all hot under the collar about when somebody does the 'wrong' thing.

Like McDonalds, who brought out a jerk chicken burger which is shown here. And then there's all the chilled marinated jerk chicken you can buy in the supermarket. Possibly frozen dishes too. The most notorious case of so-called cultural appropriation though is that of Jamie Oliver who really copped it when he - or his people - came out with a microwavable rice, called Punchy Jerk Rice. The outrage was massive including put downs from an MP and from Levi Roots a Jamaican chef, who gave him the recipe you will find for jerk chicken on the Jamie Oliver website - Levi Roots-stylee jerk chicken and jalapeño breads.

The rice was a bit of a mistake really. Not thought through in today's world of cultural appropriation correctness. He defended it by saying:

'I've worked with flavours and spices from all over the world my whole career, learning and drawing inspiration from different countries and cultures to give a fresh twist to the food we eat every day. When I named the rice my intention was only to show where my inspiration came from."

So dare we have a go at making jerk chicken ourselves? As I said in yesterday's piece, Robert Carrier's version seemed reasonably authentic to me, so I don't feel too bad about it, and really I am just grateful to the Jamaicans for inventing this dish and giving it to the world. And it was totally delicious. Besides:

"There are as many takes on jerk chicken in Jamaica as there are cooks on the island, but most share the same method: Chicken is coated in a seasoning mixture dominated by spices and chiles, then grilled." Wine and Food"

Isn't that what home cooks do? Make their own version. I bet there are thousands of different ways the English housewife makes roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for example. It would be ridiculous to set a recipe in stone when new equipment, new improved ingredients, and different philosophies about what we should be eating come into play.

"making it is more art than science, and a true jerk chef cooks as much from intuition as any set recipe." Joshua Samuel Brown - Lonely Planet

You just have to bear in mind what you are trying to achieve:

"Good jerk should be simultaneously spicy and sweet, paradoxically simple and complex; the sweetness of molasses brings out the fiery habañero peppers (not for the faint of heart) without masking them, while the hodge-podge of other Caribbean spices adds a veritable bouquet of flavors not found in a typical barbecue dish." Joshua Samuel Brown - Lonely Planet

And this is the 'real' thing - Jamaican street jerk chicken.

But what about us mere mortals? Well of course Felicity Cloake gives it the once over concluding that:

"this is the only chicken recipe you should bother with on the barbecue – there's not much else to touch it. ... After my jerk trials, I'm inclined to agree that really, however you cook it, jerk chicken cannot be anything other than delicious " Felicity Cloake

I do think that you should try the Robert Carrier version - I can vouch for it, but there are heaps more. Here are just three of them - Felicity Cloake's perfect version; one from Lonely Planet and one from Curtis Stone, whom I have included because although he is a Michelin starred chef, this is from the Coles Magazine and therefore achievable. He calls his Barbecued jerk-glazed chicken. Interestingly, the only Caribbean cook that I know of - Ainsley Harriott does not seem to have recipe. Well not online anyway.

All this time I have been talking of marinades, and of course, the longer you marinade the better the flavour, but you can also make a rub, a spice mix. Again there are thousands of versions on the net. This one is from Jo cooks. I guess you could make it into a marinade by adding liquid - lime juice and soy sauce, but bear in mind that because it's a dry spice mix it has used dried herbs and spices rather than fresh ones, which must change the taste a bit. It would be interesting to try.

"the dry rub makes for "a crustier jerk; a wet rub produces juicier meat". The New York times

And don't forget it doesn't have to be chicken.

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