Studying demonstrations from the likes of Collin Brown, Levi Roots, Rustie Lee and Hassan DeFour reveal the common specialities of cooking Caribbean cuisine. Likewise, flipping through heaps of recipe books; some simple, some more indepth, highlights the growth of interest in this area. But distinctively, it is the essence of pit-smoked jerk cooking that has been making its way beyond just the TV screens and recipe books and into people’s rustic kitchens.
This method dates back to the Arawak Indians some 2500 years ago who came from South America and inhabited Jamaica. After the capture, cleansing and gutting of an animal, similar to procedures in Peru, they would place the chicken in a deep pit lined with stones. When burned, it would smoulder immensely and enhance the taste; the meat would be ‘jerked’ with a sharp object to make holes which were stuffed with herbs.
Clutching an abundance of ingredients, I return to my wooden sideboards to make my own signature jerk chicken, as if it were second nature. The tender rubbing of the large boneless chicken sprinkled with salt and drops of sweet lime, with finely chopped scotch bonnet pepper, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and cayenne pepper brings the taste of the island straight to the kitchen. A common practice is not to skimp on the spices, even if you cut down on the heat. Don’t overlook the onions, garlic and vegetable oil to create a marinade to leave overnight.
Jamaicans have a way of cooking jerk chicken, with smoke seething from the crisp skin and evaporating into the air. I preheat the oven to 400F and cook the chicken for 30 minutes leaving a crisp skin with the tender meat underneath.
The concoction of a sweet and lingering aroma always leaves me yearning for a wonderfully spiced, yet moist and tender platter of homemade food, Jamaican style. The infusion of an open fire barbecue in traditional Jamaican cooking now occurs in jerk huts situated on the roadside. Usually, it is cooked in the ambience of people trading produce, while enjoying loud reggae music pulsating from the speaker set.