We just talked about the Scotch bonnet, now it is time to explore the Scotch bonnet’s starring role: jerk chicken. This ubiquitous dish can be found all over Jamaica and, while I wasn’t able to enjoy traditional jerk chicken, I did have some pretty killer plant-based alternatives. It’s one of those dishes I’m pretty much always craving.
Other Ingredients in Jerk Chicken
So we know that the Scotch bonnet is a key ingredient in jerk chicken, but what else goes into this fiery blend? Typically, jerk chicken is marinated or dry-rubbed in a mixture of flavorful spices, including allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some folks like to substitute habanero or even cayenne peppers for Scotch bonnets, though I still say the latter makes for the best jerk seasoning. Garlic, onions, and scallions typically make appearances, while soy sauce, vinegar, and/or vegetable oil are often used for liquids. As with any great food, there are countless ways to make jerk chicken, and each restaurant and home in Jamaica seemed to have its proprietary blend. I can’t tell you how many spoonfuls I sampled while in Jamaica. Nor can I say I had a bad batch.
In my previous article on the Scotch bonnet, I mentioned that the tongue-tingling pepper was introduced to Jamaica by the Taino people, who brought it from South America. These same Taino also laid the foundations for jerk chicken (and jerk cooking in general). The word “jerk” comes from the Spanish charqui, meaning “dried strips of meat.” And if you correctly guessed that this is also where we get our word “jerky,” you win a Slim Jim!
While the word comes from Spanish, this method of cooking predates Columbus’ arrival. The Taino would coat meat – and sometimes vegetables – in a spicy marinade before slow-cooking it over coals of green pimento wood. The Taino taught this method of cooking to enslaved Africans, who refined this recipe into the cooking style we know today. In Jamaican cuisine, “Jerk” refers to both the spice blend/marinade and the cooking method. And, as I learned in Jamaica, the best jerk dishes involve both a piquant marinade or spice rub and “low and slow” cooking for that perfect charred, smoky flavor. Sorry, my mouth is watering. And I don’t even eat chicken.
Cooking Jerk Chicken at Home
If you don’t have the space, resources, or patience to smoke chicken over wood chips, I don’t blame you. In a pinch, grilling a well-marinated chicken will do. You’ve probably seen premade jerk marinades or spice blends at your local supermarket, but as usual, buying a jar isn’t necessary. Aside from the Scotch bonnets – which you can find in many produce aisles – most of the ingredients for a good jerk marinade or rub are probably in your pantry already. Find a recipe that works for you and whip up a batch. Personally, I always have a batch of homemade jerk marinade on hand, because I never know when I will want to add a touch of tropical heat to my meals. And if you’re looking to try this delicious dish on your next Jamaican vacation, I’ve got you covered.
Best Jerk Chicken in Kingston
Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, is also the capital of jerk chicken. It’s served just about everywhere in this seaside city, but these five spots are not to be missed.
A relative newcomer, this outdoor spot has gained a huge following for its perfectly charred jerk chicken. But chicken isn’t the only “jerk” on the menu here: the restaurant also serves jerk lamb, jerk, pork, jerk rabbit, and – for seafood lovers – jerk conch. If you’re a huge jerk-head (sorry if that sounds like a childhood insult) this is the place to go.
Sweetwood Jerk Joint
Like Kingston Jerk, Sweetwood Jerk Joint also puts Jamaica’s preferred spice blend on just about everything: you’ll find jerk fish here and even jerk sausage. It also has plenty of outdoor seating, as do many of the restaurants in Kingston. I guess when you’re dining in a tropical paradise, you might as well grab a seat outside.
I had to throw one out for my fellow vegans and vegetarians. Veggie Campus is a plant-based spot in Kingston that serves one of my favorite veggie takes on jerk chicken: jerk cauliflower. Cauliflower has been substituting for a lot of my favorite dishes lately (pizza, Buffalo wings) and when given a nice jerk rub and grilled to perfection, it’s instantly addicting. It goes great with their vegan mac & cheese.
22 Jerk is another popular jerk chicken spot in Kingston–one that also features live music and dancing. Since “jerky” accurately describes my dance moves, it’s a perfect fit. This is a great spot to check out while soaking in Kingston’s vibrant nightlife.
If you like a lot of heat on your jerk chicken, Spicy Jerk on Kingston’s northwest side is the place to go. Ditto if you have a late-night jerk chicken craving, as this spot is open 24 hours. Just make sure to bring those Tums!
If there is another Kingston jerk chicken spot that you swear by, I would love to hear about it in the comments. I am always looking for new places to try on my return trip!
If you enjoyed this recipe or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other dishes I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.