Jamaican Jerk: A Short History

There are few recipes which have sparked more controversy than Jerk Chicken. It’s a dish which evokes passion and protection in equal measures.

Jamie Oliver came under fire for his microwavable ‘punchy jerk rice’, as did Ikea for its ‘take’ on jerk chicken with rice and peas and McDonalds for its Jerk Chicken Sandwich. All were accused of cultural appropriation and generally bastardising this treasured Caribbean dish.

It’s little surprise. In Jamaica, cooking jerk is so much more than just a recipe. It’s a national institution, the rhythm of daily life and so laden with nostalgia it’s inspired homesick Jamaicans to set-up ‘jerk shacks’ everywhere from Tampa to Tottenham.

The very evolution of the dish tells the island’s story. It was early ‘fusion food’. Jamaican author, Carolyn Cooper, describes jerk as “one of the enduring legacies of the fusion of Taíno and African cultures,” referencing a period in the mid-seventeenth century where the indigenous island people and enslaved Africans came together, and cooked together.

The term ‘Taíno’ was first recorded in Spanish chronicles in 1493. It referred to the Arawak-speaking communities who lived in pre-colonial Caribbean. It would’ve been Taíno people who Columbus first encountered when he landed. Their numbers were desecrated under Spanish rule (1494–1655) – wiped-out by European illness, persecuted, exploited and killed for their land.

The Taíno Genocide

By 1655, when the English took Jamaica from the Spanish, it’s thought that just 10% of the Taíno population had survived. Instead, it was Coromantee slaves (an archaic term for enslaved people of the Akan ethnicity living in modern-day Ghana) who made up a bulk of the island population by the time that the Spanish colonists fled.

So as to evade capture when the island transferred to English rule, the Coromantee disappeared deep into Jamaica’s dense jungles and mountainous interior, where they became known as ‘Maroons’ (derived from Spanish cimarrones, meaning ‘mountaineers’). It’s here that the Taíno and African shared and ultimately fused culinary customs. The tradition of ‘jerk’ became embedded in Jamaica’s cuisine – with the cooking done in smokeless pits so the Maroons’ location wasn’t given-away.

“Jerk refers to the technique, the spice mixture and the finished product,” explains Winston Stona, the godfather of modern jerk and the co-founder of Busha Browne (the first major producer and exporter of jerk seasonings in the late-1970s). Traditionally, jerk involved dry-rubbing wild pig (now also chicken, fish and tofu) in a fiery dry-spice blend and then cooking it in a pit.

Allspice (also known as pimento), Scotch Bonnet chillies, ginger and thyme are the cornerstones of a jerk seasoning. The rest is a roving feast. Purists might recreate a Jamaican jerk drum and source pimento wood chips (from the allspice tree). The New York Times summarised it perfectly: “jerk is so ingrained in Jamaican cooks that the notion of getting a recipe is entertaining, something like asking a midwesterner for a hamburger recipe.”

It’s the reason why there’s a lot of scope when it comes to home-style jerk. Kwame Onwuachi swears on a brine for his ‘Best Jerk Chicken’.  Andi Oliver goes all-out with orange, limes, lemon and a good slug of rum in her ‘Citrus Jerk Chicken’ and in ‘Original Flava’, McNuff uses BBQ sauce and ketchup, for a (controversial) oven-style jerk chicken.

Kwame Onwuachi cooking Jerk Chicken

There’s some irony that a Jamaican recipe which is so furiously protected started out as Taíno-African fusion, and has the elasticity of a dish which pre-dated formal recipe-writing. Instead it was orally passed-down generations – with each family introducing their own adaptation. Yet what binds together all these cherished recipes is a broad understanding of the history and respect for the culinary tradition.

“Rice cannot be jerked,” pointed out Marti Burgess (who took responsibility for the Twitter storm surrounding Jamie Oliver’s ‘Punchy Jerk Rice’). “If you are going to call something Jerk then it should at least contain the essential ingredients.” So, we encourage you to make the allspice and Scotch Bonnets non-negotiable, and use the recipe below as a starting point to jerk … sensitively and succulently.

For our own Rooted Spice’s Jerk Seasoning recipe, click the link HERE.

Recommended Further Reading:
‘Where to find London’s Best Jamaican Jerk’ by Riaz Phillips

‘Black Erasure in the British Food Industry’ by Melissa Thompson

Barbecue Basics, Pit Magazine  

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