Many travelers come to Jamaica and want to try “authentic” Jamaican food. To most of these people Jerk Chicken is one of those foods. I’d like to debunk a few myths around Jerk, but first let’s discuss what makes a food authentic. A dish can be considered authentic if it is (1) prepared using a traditional method, (2) using ingredients that are specific to the location where it has traditionally been prepared.
Here’s a breakdown of what makes Jerk authentic:
Traditional preparation method: This goes all the way back to the early history of Jamaica. I’ll try to make a long story short: Arawak Indians were the first inhabitants of Jamaica and they smoked their meats to preserve them-->Slaves were brought to Jamaica-->A group of slaves called Maroons escaped into the mountains-->The Maroons adapted the Arawak Indian techniques of cooking and preserving meat by slow grilling (barbecuing) wild boars over a wood (primarily Pimento) fire and covered with leaves-->Descendants of the Maroons living in Portland, Jamaica (Boston Bay) continued to practice this cooking method and developed what they called "Jerk Pits"-->In the 70’s Kingston opened up it’s first Jerk center-->In the 90’s Pimento wood became scarce and people began to jerk meat over coal, covered it in zinc.
Location specific ingredients: Common ingredients in Jamaican cooking include pimento (which is often called allspice) and scotch bonnet peppers (also known as habanero).
With that knowledge in mind let’s debunk some common myths about Jerk:
Myth 1: Jerk Chicken is the most authentic type of Jerk
Nope. Although Jerk chicken is my personal favorite, see #1 above. Jerk pork was the first jerk. It wasn’t until later that Jamaicans started jerking other meats.
Myth 2: True Jerk is very spicy
Nope. I’m not sure where this myth comes from but I’m going to guess it’s from the manufacturers of “Jerk Seasonings” who wanted to capture the flavor of Jamaica in one shot. I think this lead to the stereotype that Jamaican food is very spicey in general, but that pretty far from actual reality. Most dishes are served with scotch bonnet pepper sauce on the side for those that like the heat. It is true that scotch bonnet peppers are used in most dishes, but it doesn’t necessarily make the dish hot. In fact it’s usually added to the pot whole then removed before serving. As long as the pepper doesn’t burst your dish will have a nice flavor that isn’t too spicy. The experienced cook, like Ms. Faye, knows exactly which scotch bonnet pepper to use and how long to leave it in the pot before it makes the dish hot.
Myth 3: You can make good Jerk chicken in your home kitchen
Unless you have a grill that burns coal or wood you’re already out of the game. In fact, most Jamaicans don’t make jerk chicken at home for this reason. Now I have seen people make Jerk pork at home using a boiling technique but it requires a mastery of Jamaican seasoning. Now I’m not saying it is impossible to make decent jerk at home, but it will never compare to a traditional jerk.
All that being said my favorite Jerk chicken in Jamaica (outside of Boston Bay) is at Scotchies. They have two locations; the original in Montego Bay and the other in Ocho Rios. I recommend you get your chicken with a side of festival. I like to put Jamaican ketchup (yes the ketchup has to be qualified as Jamaican because it’s different, just trust me it’s amazing) and a tiny bit of pepper sauce on mine.