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The history of jerk and how to use it to enhance everything

By September 27, 2020No Comments

Nico Reynolds returns this week to take us through the history of jerk marinade and some foolproof recipes. 

The first inhabitants in Jamaica were the Arawak people who migrated from the lowlands of northern south America. For exactly how long the Arawak tribes called what is now the island of Jamaica their home remains a clumsy pile of guesstimates. Still, their customs have passed through in cultural whispers and edible echos.


In 1492 when Columbus spiked the soil of Jamaica in the name of the Spanish King, and after the permanent Spanish settlers became established, the first introduction of new culture began on the Island. Early Spanish settlers introduced large domesticated animals like pigs, cattle and goat from 1503. Previously locals had enjoyed sustenance from rooters like cassava, sweet potato, yams and proteins like fish and iguanas. 

Spices were introduced to mask the taste of the unrefrigerated meat. In 1644, a priest and native of the island Espinosa Centeno wrote “the quantity of wild hogs was so great that [the food] is highly spiced spawning from a time when refrigeration was non-existent it is understandable to prefer a style of flavour that may mask the taste of spoiled meat.”

The work “Jerk” is an anglicisation of “charqui” – a Spanish word said to have come from the Quechua language of the American natives. The method of Jerk of cooking was probably learned from the Arawak’s and was preserved by the maroon who were former slaves of the Spanish and reinforced by runaway slaves.

Novelist M.G Lewis described his first experience of jerk as “…..vapour it is baked, no particle of juice being thus suffered to evaporate.”

This is the classic Jerk marinade. I cannot conjure up another recipe that is so quintessentially perfect for grilling meats and veg. It also works great for roasting and frying. Fruity, tangy and spiced – each mouthful is an intriguing saga that the palette wanders gleefully though. This works great with pork, chicken and seafood. It’s also a happy marriage for vegetables like aubergine and jackfruit.

First the spice Mix

One main component of Jamaican cooking is Pimento aka Allspice (called so by British traders who noted the perfume of the berry as a similar combination of cinnamon nutmeg and cloves). The wood and leaves are used in the smoking process which imparts a fruity aroma. I always recommend making your own spice mix from scratch the depth of the mouthfeel is incomparable. You can also play around with dried herbs and seeds to make your own blend.

Jerk seasoning

  • 20 grams Pimento berries (whole allspice)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 nutmeg
  • 2 grams of cloves

Toast the spices on a low heat in a saucepan for 5 minutes or until the aromas start to invade the air.

This is the oil being liberated from the husks. Blend together in a spice grinder or a pestle and mortar until powder-like.

Photo by Andra Ion on Unsplash

The marinade

  • 1 large onion
  • 3 spring onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 50 grams of ginger peeled and chopped.
  • 2 tablespoons of coconut sugar or brown sugar
  • 100 ml of dark soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of Allspice
  • 1 teaspoon of thyme leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper
  • Juice of one lime
  • 50 ml Thyme Vinegar (heat thyme stalks and all and vinegar with some dark sugar)
  • 1 Scotch bonnet pepper (Y=you can also use habaneros or regular chillies if scotch bonnets are unavailable)

Blend everything together in a food processor.

I don’t usually add salt in the marinade as the soy sauce has a high sodium make up.

You can play around with this recipe; rules are always made to be broken. If you like more spice throw in some bonnets, if you want more sweetness add more sugar. I love trying out different sugars to balance the heat, e.g. molasses, cane sugar, palm sugar and different aromatic vinegars that give that initial tang.

With Chicken: I recommend using the leg, wing and thigh you can use the breast also however it tends to dry up quicker.

Score the chicken skin with a sharp knife.

Be sure that the marinade gets into every little crevice of the bird.

For me 24 hours to 30 hours is the ideal window for marinating granting the flavours time to permeate into the meat.

On the Grill: an easy tip for grilling is to have two heat sections one hot one warm or a better way to gauge the heat is holding your hand over the coal/grill, if you can just about bare 10 seconds that’s an ideal temp. The legs should take about 30 – 35 to reach a cooking temp and crisp the skin.

In the oven: For a juicy chicken that will impress, place the chicken in a baking tray and cover with tinfoil. Cover the chicken with the left over marinade. Cook low and slow at 170c for 1 hour.

When the chicken has cooked all the way through remove the foil and turn up the heat to 220 until the skin is brown and crispy.

While the chicken is resting, decant the juices from the baking tray into a saucepan with some tomato paste and a little cornflour to thicken. Dive in with your paws and don’t be timid!

With Pork: I’ve found the fatty cuts make for great cooking (shoulder and chops). Marinade the meat overnight.

In the oven: cooking low and slow will ensure the juices mix with marinade for the bases of a lip-smacking tasty jerk sauce.

With seafood: Seafood does not need as much time to marinade as meat so you can prepare hours before. Basting grilled prawns with the tangy jerk sauce is a close to god as you might get on a sunny afternoon.

Nico Reynolds via Instagram

Jerk Jackfruit:

  • 300 grams of Jackfruit (if you’re using the tinned jackfruit, remove the brine flavour by rinsing the fruit).
  • 3 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 1 onion (diced)
  • 1 inch of ginger (peeled and diced)
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 spring onion (leaves)
  • 1 scotch bonnet chill (or regular chilli)
  • 300 ml of veg stock
  • 30 ml of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon of allspice
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  •  1 tablespoon of brown sugar

Drizzle a drop of sunflower oil in a pot on a low to medium heat and add the ginger, garlic and thyme and cook for 5 minutes while gently stirring, you’re trying to flavour the oil. Turn up the heat add the onion and spring onion and sweat for 10 minutes

Add the Jackfruit meat and continue to cook slowly pour in the veg stock.

Add the Tomato paste, spices, sugar and chilli (add the chilli pepper whole and careful not to break it).

Put the lid on the pot and simmer on a low to medium heat for 1 hour until the mixture has thickened

Pour the mixture on a tinfoil lined baking tray and roast in a preheated oven at 180c.

This recipe works great with tacos or in a sandwich. I always like to have it with something cooling like a coriander and yogurt sauce or some diced pineapple.