The biggest fast-food industry on the island of Jamaica is its famous jerk food. Caribbean vacation travelers come to Jamaica just to enjoy the vast variety of jerk, including chicken, goat, beef, pork, sausage, fish, lobster, shrimp, and even vegetables. You haven’t tasted Jamaica until you’ve sampled real Jamaican jerk, but be prepared: spicy hot jerk can pack some intense heat! Jerk, which is native to Jamaica, is a process of spicing and then grilling meats which have been dry rubbed with an extremely spicy mixture made principally of Scotch Bonnet peppers (which are in the Habanero family and are among the hottest peppers going); and then have been marinated into the meat for hours before grilling. Except perhaps atop the Blue Mountains, you can’t go anywhere in Jamaica without encountering a jerk stand. These street side fire pits are usually made from old oil barrels which are cut in half longitudinally; hinged and drilled with ventilation holes; and then layered with charcoal and the sweet, aromatic leaves and wood of allspice trees (which produces the unique flavor of jerk).
Traditional accompaniments to jerk include rice and black beans, roasted sweet potatoes, fried plantains, mango salsa, and grilled pineapple. These foods are all high in starches and acids, which helps to ameliorate the burn of the spices. Every chef concocts his or her own special version of jerk spice rub, adding ingredients such as scallions, garlic, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, or thyme. Some chefs add vinegar or soy sauce to the marinade to make the meat juicier. Then the meat is slow-roasted at low temperatures for several hours over a fire made from allspice wood, which gives the sweet and spicy smoke flavor characteristic of jerk. Natives and tourists on Jamaica vacations all have their own favorites, and the debate goes on over which chef concocts the best jerk (since individual and family recipes are zealously guarded).
The word “jerk” is derived from “charqui”, a Spanish word for dried meat (from which the English work “jerky” is also derived). Some theorists believe that jerk port was invented by Maroons, the Jamaican slaves originally from West Africa who escaped from the British in the year 1655. Others say that the jerk process was invented by the Arawak Indians, who were the first people on Jamaica, and who used liberal amounts of peppers and spices and then smoked meats over shallow fire pits which burned allspice wood in order to preserve the meat. Gourmet travelers to Jamaica take advantage of summer discount vacation packages to visit Boston Bay in Portland Parish on Jamaica’s east coast, where the allspice trees grow wild and where every July the annual Portland Jerk Festival is held at Folly Great House outside Port Antonio. This is a fun-filled, three day event with local entertainment and some of the best jerk by Jamaica’s finest cooks. Just follow the smoke and the aroma and enjoy the greatest gathering of jerks and jerk lovers in the world!