We’re already heading into the hottest months of the year here in Thailand and I can’t think of a better way to beat the heat than cooking up a fiery Jamaican Jerk. It’s hot, its ‘spicy, it’s smokin, and it’s a sure bet for breaking into a sweat that’s going to cool you right down Jamaica style!
I realize you all who live further north are still getting battered by some fierce late winter storms, but what better way to escape winter’s travails than chowing down on a seriously hot and lively Jamaican Jerk. Hold onto that thought! This is the kind of in your face spirited food that interjects a partying mood with every mind blowing bite anytime of the year!
Jerk refers to the local Jamaican cooking methods as well as the spice mixture, including locally grown allspice, that is used as a rub or marinade that seasons the chicken or pork before cooking. The allspice tree is an evergreen shrub that grows throughout the Greater Antilles, Southern Mexico, and Central America. The wood is used for cooking and smoking while the allspice berries (pimento) are dried, ground and combined with other spices for the Jamaican Jerk rub or marinade.
Jamaican jerk evolved using cooking methods brought to the island by enslaved Africans combined with indigenous Taino traditional pit roasting. Once metal barrels arrived on the island, vertical barrels were adapted for grilling and smoking the jerk simultaneously. Eventually barrel cookery was reinvented by splitting the barrel horizontally. The bottom half of the barrel is stoked with charcoal and fired up. The hot embers are then topped with allspice wood or sweet wood (laurel). The chicken or pork is then placed on top of the smoldering wood. The upper half of the barrel is then pulled down to create an intense chamber of aromatic smoke emitting from the red hot embers and smoldering wood. This combination of flavors and aromas is what makes Jamaican Jerk so unique and popular in Jerk joints on the island as well as in Jamaican enclaves in the US, Canada, the UK, and other Caribbean islands.
The other essential ingredient for any authentic Jamaican jerk is the island’s notoriously hot Scotch Bonnet chilies! These chilies have a distinct fruity flavor, but it is their 100,000 Scoville units of spicy heat that ranks them as the hottest chilies on the planet! But don’t let that scare you off. Risk is, after all, the very spice of life!
The recipe that follows is for Jamaican jerk chicken for the home cook. Obviously home cooks are not going to have a barrel cooker or maybe not even a grill for that matter. Not to worry! The oven method that follows will deliver an authentic mahogany colored Jamaican Jerk scented with allspice and sweet wood (bay laurel) that you will be proud to serve and a sure fire crowd-pleaser to use year round.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken serves 4
Prepare the marinade mixture and marinate the chicken for at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours before roasting.
Scotch bonnet chilies will be hard to find unless you happen to live near a Jamaican enclave. If they are not available, Habanero chilies are very similar and available in Latino markets. Otherwise using a combination of hot Thai chilies will nicely replicate the flavor and heat of the Scotch Bonnet chilies.
You can use a whole chicken with backbone removed, a chicken cut into pieces, legs and thighs only, or just skin on breasts. Breasts in particular, using this cooking method, are beautifully succulent and juicy.
For the marinade/rub:
- 2-4 Scotch Bonnet chilies or Habanero chilies, seeds removed and chopped
- If Scotch Bonnet or Habanero chilies are not available, use 2 yellow Thai chilies and 6-8 red and/ or green Thai chilies, seeds removed and chopped
- 6 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
- 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely grated
- 1 inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1 teaspoon dried crumbled thyme leaves
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon finely ground bay leaves (ground in an electric spice mill)
- 3 tablespoons natural dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons dark rum
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
Using a food processor or blender, combine the chilies, scallions, garlic, ginger, thyme, allspice, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, bay leaves, and brown sugar. Pulse until the mixture is well combined and nearly pureed.
In a small bowl whisk together the vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, rum, and soy sauce until well combined. With the food processor or blender running add the liquid mixture until well combined.
Then with the machine running add the oil in a slow steady stream until just incorporated.
Add the salt and pulse to mix. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Transfer the marinade to a non-reactive bowl or tray large enough to hold the chicken and set aside.
You can either poke holes into the chicken using a skewer or, if using breasts, slash the underside of the breasts with a very sharp knife on the diagonal. This will allow the marinade to penetrate deeply into the flesh.
Massage and press the chicken into the marinade until completely covered. Cover the dish with cling film and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours.
Remove the marinated chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you intend to roast.
Preheat the oven to 475 f/ 245 c
Select a deep roasting pan and a rack that will fit into the roasting pan snugly.
- ½ cup broken bay laurel leaves
- ¼ cup allspice berries or
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- ½ cup water
Scatter the bay leaves evenly over the bottom of the roasting pan. Top evenly with the allspice berries or ground allspice. Add the water to the pan and place the rack into the pan. Transfer to the preheating oven.
Once the oven is up to the required heat, remove the roasting pan from the oven. Shake off excess marinade from the chicken and place the chicken onto the hot rack skin side down. Promptly return the pan to the oven and roast for 15 minutes.
While the chicken is roasting, transfer the remaining marinade to a sauce pan and reduce until the marinade is the consistency of a paste. Remove from the heat and set aside.
After 15 minutes remove the pan from the oven and turn the chicken over, skin side up. Baste generously and return the pan to the oven for 15 minutes. Then open the oven and baste the chicken once again. Turn the pan to ensure even roasting and roast for another 15 to 20 minutes. The chicken should have an almost mahogany charred color. Do not be concerned. The chicken has not burned, the brown sugar has merely darkened the marinade during roasting.
Remove from the oven, cover lightly with foil and rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Traditionally Jerk is served with rice and beans, and sometimes with a spicy fruit salsa as pictured. Be sure to spoon pan juices over the chicken before serving.
Any tropical fruit salsa laced with chilies adds a fresh sweetness to the sliced jerk chicken.