The original natives of Jamaica, the Arawak Indians, are thought to have developed the concept of jerk seasoning. Because of the hot and humid climate of the island, they found it necessary to come up with a method to preserve their meats for storage until use. They would apply this seasoning as a rub on the meat and then slowly cook it over open fire pits. The term itself may have been derived from a Spanish term that means “dried meat”. Others believe it refers to the way the meat is continuously turned (referred to as jerked) as it cooks.
The taste is actually a combination of many flavors all mixed together creating a unique blend with a tropical flair. Some more notable spices included are Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice (pimento), cinnamon, garlic, salt, rum, thyme, and lime juice. The grouping produces an island influenced distinctive mixture of both tangy and spicy tastes. The aromatic fragrance of the spices draws vacationers in droves to enjoy this Jamaican cuisine.
In addition to all the spices used, the meat is grilled over hardwood coals that have allspice leaves and pimento berries added to them. These also combine and aid in the smoking of the spice rubbed meat as is it slowly roasted. Although open pits are sometimes still utilized, many restaurants now have switched to barrel drum cookers or jerk pans. The barrel drums are cut in half and hinged together with holes drilled in the lid.
The fragrance emitted from cooking, coupled with the spice mixture applied to the different meats, draws many a tourist to the restaurants in this Caribbean paradise. So appetizing is this cuisine, that jerk stands are abundant along venues popular with vacationers. To appeal to a wider variety of palates, the mixture can be adapted and the spiciness reduced, or other spices manipulated to come up with a satisfactory blend.
In the beginning, jerk seasoning was used only when grilling chicken and pork. As time passed, experimenting led to its use on a variety of different foods like goat, fish, beef, and sausage. All of these are prepared in the same fashion – slow grilling with continual turning.
After returning home. Many people purchase the herbs themselves and manipulate the mixture to develop a similar spice combination. As is done in the island restaurants, the spiciness can be regulated to meet the diner’s taste. This tropical method of cooking is becoming more popular in private homes, and the fragrant roasting of herbs enhances the flavors.
Restaurants across the world are also getting in on the experience. Many now offer at least a few dishes on their menu to appease hungry Jamaican travelers, when a Caribbean trip is not on the horizon. The chefs must still use the spice rub or marinating process and slow roast over coals to obtain an authentic taste.
Vacationing in Jamaica is an experience in itself. Adding the aromatic and spicy jerk seasoning to the cuisine enjoyed, creates a tropical island experience most tourists will never forget. Add to it, a side dish of dumplings or hard bread and you can be transported back to paradise again and again.