The History of Jerk Cooking

Jamaican Jerk refers to a way or style of cooking meat that is native to Jamaica. It's a blend of spices, herbs and marinate in which meat, be it chicken, beef, pork, goat, fish, vegetables or fruit is dry-rubbed or wet marinated. It has become a way of life for Jamaicans to prepare this award-winning way of cooking and serving meat.

When I started researching the history of how jerk style had its native beginnings, I came across a few historians’ variations of how it began. Some believed that this style of cooking dates back to over 2500 years ago when the Maroons first introduced this African meat cooking technique to Jamaica which was combined with native cooking techniques. Others argue that jerking originated with the Amerindians in Jamaica from the Arawak and Taino tribes who intermingled with the Maroons.

However, the story goes, this smokey taste of jerked meat is achieved using a variety of cooking methods and techniques.

Jerk cooking is popular in Caribbean and West Indian communities throughout North America and Western Europe. Jerk cooking and seasoning has gained popularity with the Caribbean diaspora all over the world, and forms of jerk can now be found at restaurants almost anywhere a significant population of Caribbean descent exists, such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Jerk Techniques

The cooking technique of jerking, as well as the results it produces, has evolved over time from using pit fires to old oil barrel drums as the cooking vessel of choice. Around the 1960s, Caribbean entrepreneurs seeking to recreate the smoked pit flavor by an easier, more portable method came up with a solution to cut oil barrels lengthwise and attach hinges, drilling several ventilation holes for the smoke. This is the method that Taste of Jamaica employs, also called Pan Jerk. These barrels are filled and fired with charcoal or pimento wood, which enhances the spicy, smoky taste.

Alternatively, when these cooking methods are unavailable, other methods of meat smoking, including wood-burning ovens, can be used to jerk meat. However, oil barrels are arguably one of the most popular cooking methods for making jerk in Jamaica. Most jerk in Jamaica is no longer cooked in the traditional method and is grilled over hardwood charcoal in a steel drum.

Street food "jerk stands" or "jerk centres" are often found across the island. Jerked meat can be purchased along with sides of hard dough bread, deep fried cassava bammy (Taste of Jamaica’s homemade special flatbread, usually served with Escovitch fish) or fried dumplings and festival, which is a variation of sweet flavored fried dumplings made with sugar.

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