Jamaican Cuisine — Jerk Chicken

Jamaican food over the years has been shaped by the Spanish, British, African, Indian, and Chinese people who have inhabited the island over the last several centuries.  Though Rastafarians are less than one percent of the population, they have added their contributions to the cuisine also, with numerous dishes built around their religious beliefs barring consumption of pork (and for the most devout, meat of any kind).

Jamaica quick facts:

  • Capital: Kingston
  • Population: 2,889,187 (2012 estimate)
  • Notable Jamaicans: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Usain Bolt, Patrick Ewing, Shaggy, Kendra Young

Jamaica’s national dish is probably ackee and saltfish, and serves as a decent illustration of how the varying cultures that make up modern Jamaica have merged.  Ackee is a West African fruit related to lychees that is cultivated in Jamaica and is an important cash crop.  The Spanish brought bacalao, or salt cod, and the dish also includes the local Scotch bonnet peppers.  Unfortunately the key ingredient, ackee, is not widely available in the Pacific Northwest for the same reason the dish is not particularly famous outside of Jamaica: ackee is poisonous when unripe and becomes poisonous again when left ripe for too long, so exportation of fresh ackee is nearly impossible.  Canned ackee exists but at this time is not exported in great quantity.

For Americans like us, the most famous Jamaican dish is jerk chicken (recipe follows).  The name “jerk” can be applied to any grilled meat in Jamaica that is seasoned with a Scotch bonnet pepper and allspice-heavy marinade or spice rub.  Roadside jerk stands (regrettably not called “jerk stores“) are everywhere in Jamaica, where the meat is grilled slowly over a fire usually made from allspice wood.  We have been lacking in appropriate outdoor grilling weather in February in the Pacific Northwest so we made do in our oven.  Also, Scotch bonnet peppers are uncommon in our markets, but the very similar habaneros are readily available year-round so we made the switch.

Jerk chicken

adapted from Lucinda’s Authentic Jamaican Kitchen by Lucinda Scala Quinn

  • 3 bunches green onions, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 habanero peppers, seeded and finely diced
  • 2 Tbs ground allspice
  • 2 Tbs dried thyme
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into serving pieces

Jerk chicken starts with a jerk spice marinade, so to begin we cut the root ends off of our green onions and trimmed any discolored green tips:

greenonions

Next the onions were sliced thinly, then roughly chopped in a pile on the cutting board until no larger pieces remained.  The onions were transferred to a bowl to make way for the habaneros.

We recommend using nitrile gloves for any hot pepper handling, but consider it vital with habaneros.  It is a lesson a person typically only needs to learn the hard way once.  It is also advisable to wash the knife, board, and any other surface they might have contacted immediately before proceeding to another task.

Now that we’ve said our piece on habanero safety, the peppers were sliced in half lengthwise to remove the seeds, then finely diced:

habanerosminced
That’s some fine knife skills, Angie!

This went into the green onion bowl, along with the garlic, allspice, thyme, salt, and pepper, where the mixture was mixed thoroughly until it formed a cohesive paste:

jerkpaste

The paste was thinned with the water:

addingwater

…and mixed to combine:

jerkmarinade

This oozy, fragrant, dark green goo (that with the garlic and green onions smelled a bit like pesto) had a very spicy flavor that was well-balanced by the allspice and green onions and was deemed ready to cover our chicken.  We were delighted to discover that our nine inch-by-thirteen inch Pyrex baking dish was the perfect size for marinating a whole chicken placed in a  single layer:

chickencovered

The pan was covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated for an hour and a half.  At that time our marination patience had expired so the chicken was placed on a rack in our largest roasting pan and placed in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven, skin side up:

chickeninroastingpan

After thirty minutes of gentle roasting (typically we would roast chicken pieces at around 400 degrees, but we wanted to mimic the slow heat of an allspice wood fire in Jamaica), the chicken was ready to turn and be put back into the oven.  Another forty minutes later, the internal temperature of the thighs was about 145 degrees.  We knew that this was the perfect time to get a nice char on the skin side of the chicken, so the chicken was flipped again (to return the skin side to the top) and placed under the broiler for about five minutes.  After that time the temperature in the thighs was 155 degrees, and we knew they would be pretty close to a perfectly-cooked 160 to 165 degrees once they had rested a bit on the counter.  Even more encouraging, the skin had browned beautifully and crisped along the edges:

jerkchicken

The low roasting temperature had left the chicken tender and juicy, and by the time it came out of the oven the marinade had mellowed to a nice, dull, just-enough-to-remind-you-it’s-there spicy.  The onion, garlic, and allspice flavors had married nicely and had penetrated the chicken deeply, and even the crispy skin was coated in a layer of piquant, allspice-laden goodness.

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