Spring Into Spicy Flavors with Grilled Jerk Chicken

The term “jerk” is thought to derive from “charqui,” a Spanish word borrowed from Quechua, an indigenous language of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. “Charqui” refers to dried meat; “jerky” in English has the same etymology.

About 2500 years ago, the Arawaks (also called Tainos) brought the charqui technique from South America to Jamaica. On May 5, 1494, Christopher Columbus landed on Jamaica, which today reflects influences of all the cultures that have touched it in the ensuing 520 years – the Spaniards who conquered the Arawaks, the English who conquered the Spaniards, the Chinese and Indian migrants who came as indentured servants and, most prominently, West Africans.

When the British invaded Jamaica in 1655, the Spaniards fled and many of their slaves – descendants of Coromantee hunters from West Africa’s Gold Coast — escaped to the Blue Mountains, where they encountered the Arawaks. While avoiding recapture, they spiced their meat to preserve it and cooked it in the charqui style.

Today, spicy jerk dishes are quintessentially Jamaican. Here’s how to make jerk chicken, although the same marinade is also excellent on pork or fish like tilapia or grouper.

Ingredients

  • 6 scallions, chopped
  • ½ cup ground allspice
  • ½ cup brown sugar, packed
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3-6 Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and cored (use gloves)
  • 1 tablespoon ground thyme
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 ½-3 pounds chicken breasts, thighs or drumsticks, with skin and bones

There are a lot of ways to make jerk sauce; some other common ingredients include ginger, cloves, lime juice, orange juice, molasses and even soy sauce. Experimenting with your favorite flavors is part of the fun. Careful with those Scotch bonnet peppers, though; they add a lot of heat.

Whichever ingredients you choose, combine them all (except for the chicken, of course) in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth, then pour over the chicken in a large bowl, or in a couple of marindae bags placed on a pan. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator, turning the chicken (or the bags) a couple of times to make sure the meat is evenly coated.

Grill the chicken in batches over charcoal – or more accurately, on the side of the grill with no coals under it. Cook covered until it’s finished, which is when it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees (slightly higher for thighs). Low and slow is the way to go, to avoid dying it out.

If you want a really authentic flavor, follow these instructions (or these more elaborate instructions) for using pimento wood chips, a bed of pimento leaves (or bay leaves) and a row of pimento sticks, all of which been soaked.

Of course, you can cook the chicken on a gas grill — or even bake it in the oven at 375 degrees for about an hour, until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.

However you prepare it, chop it up and serve alongside side dishes like black beans and rice, fried plantains, mango salsa, mixed greens or cornbread. Crack open a Red Stripe, and you’ll soon find everything irie.

— Matt Rehm