Jamaican Jerk Chicken
“Come out da road!” he shouted and pushed me forcefully into a rocky strip of sand as a bus came tearing around the corner. I felt a WHOOSH of air and slight vacuum left by its departure as I blinked my eyes in the sun and glanced backward to see what had happened. Dwayne, officially the maintenance man at our rental house but today our tour guide and protector, shook his head and raised his eyebrows at me, a look not unlike one my own mother would have given me. “You got ta watch da cars, mon!” He waited for acknowledgement then indicated with an upward nod of his head to keep moving forward, up the cracked and windy asphalt.
My sister and I had landed in Lucea, the capital of the smallest parish in Jamaica, in a quest to understand the island through her local inhabitants. Days before, arriving as visitors, we were flown in, whisked through security, packed into an air conditioned private bus, sold expensive local rum, and sent on our way up, up, up into the lush green mountains of the world famous Tryall Club. We were staying in a millionare’s rental house with 11 bedrooms, 10 staff members, a swimming pool, and Lennox Lewis as a nextdoor neighbor. In the mornings we ran the steep hilled paths passing security guards and household staff on golf carts bearing the logos and names of the various houses: L’Dor V’Dor, Jubilation, Pineapple House, Harmony Hill. In the afternoons we went, en masse, to one impeccably groomed fragment of coastline where young Jamaican men tended to sailboats, kayaks and surfboards waiting only for us to hint at the prospect and they were delivered to us with no charge. For lunch a barefoot waiter delivered sandwiches and ice-cold beer with simply a glance of desire. The children in our group, nine I think, though it seemed like more, tore up and down the beach screeching at one another and each organizing another round of a complicated game. It was sublime and serene but after a few days, we needed more. We felt too far removed from any inherent culture of the island and we were missing an authenticity of place that we craved. The food we were being served was good, but not distinctive. The staff was kind but somewhat aloof. There was no connection to the island, to the people who populated it day after day, who built the airports, who ran from the hurricanes, who fished in the waters, who created the wooden tourist tchotchke with “Jamaica” crudely carved into the side. No, there was just us and an imposing house at the top of a verdant slope dotted with private security guards and a competition of houses each to be just slightly bigger than the other.
It was this that led my eldest sister and me to request a personal tour of Lucea, the nearest town. There wouldn’t be a tourist bus. No logos. No official guides. Dwayne would be our link to the community.
So first a few facts: Lucea once claimed the busiest port on the island, exporting agriculture grown in the parish to other points on the island and internationally. Bananas were the biggest export until the 1960s, followed by molasses, but the port was closed in 1983 and now the town relies heavily on tourism. Though the World Bank classifies Jamaica as an “upper middle income” country, with minimum wage set at $45.00US a week you can image how the discrepancy between year-round occupants and visitors casts a long shadow on the residents of the island. During a particularly hot moment on our walk I popped into a local grocery store to buy 5 cold beers. Our total was 630 Jamaican dollars (about $6.30US). Dwayne makes 800 Jamaican dollars (about $8.00US) a day.
The house manager dropped the three of us off at the edge of town promising to be there whenever we finished, whether we took a leisurely or extended tour. Along we walked, up, down and around the hot streets pungent from the lack of municipal services and the rotting fish and fruits. There were old men with long greying dreadlocks piled high upon their heads riding rusted bicycles along the street, there were rotund women carrying boxes of groceries and shouting at one another across the busy street. There were young men congregating on street corners and there were thin young women in crisp white uniforms waiting for the bus. There were young children walking with their caretakers and staring at us as though our white skin was a curse that might be visited upon them if they didn’t listen well at night.
During the walk we learned more than we had all week. We passed the high school that was abandoned for summer, (just like campuses all over the US), and strolled up to the unprotected, unsigned, and rusted relics of the defensive barriers and cannons hoisted onto Fort Charlotte in 1761. The nearby barracks from the late 1800s now form part of the local high school and the rest are crumbling into the sea. We took pictures of the beaten down barracks, the fisherman speeding by, the ramshackle shacks manned, during the school year, by vendors selling fruits and drinks to the students. We carried on down the main road to a crowded outdoor fish and fruit market where, in exchange for a Red Stripe I could capture the picturesque beheading and gutting of a fish at the hands of an adept fisherman.
And it was only that day that day that we learned about Jamaican cuisine. To start, it is much different than other coastal cuisines. Though it includes influences from her native people, Spanish, British, Africans, Indians and Chinese, you would never confuse it for any of those, as you may credit a Caribbean curry to the influence of the Indians. Here the food is very, very different than on other Caribbean islands. Almost as though the lush green island decided long ago that it did not need the influence of her neighbors but would take a pinch from one culture and a dash from another and create her own food culture and would be just fine, thank you very much.
Like many islands, they use the free produce grown all around them and rely little, if at all, on imported foods. Dishes are teeming with coconut, plantains, avocado and mangos. Meat comes from fish caught locally, that isn’t high enough quality to export, and the goats that roam freely around the island. Even Jerk chicken, the national dish of Jamaica, is a dish made from a variety of spices elevating an inexpensive commodity.
After our education, our day spent talking to the old men with long greying dreadlocks piled high upon their heads riding rusted bicycles along the street, the rotund women carrying boxes of groceries and shouting at one another across the busy street, the young men congregating on street corners and the thin young women in crisp white uniforms, it was time to return to our vast villa.
As we departed Lucea we looked pensively around at the people, the culture and the architecture and suggested to Dwayne that, in a last attempt at holding onto the ethos and the moment, we should find a local road-side shack for lunch and one final Red Stripe. He concurred. We were not disappointed.
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- ½ tsp. ground cloves
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 8 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1/2 cup minced scallions
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 2-3 scotch bonnet peppers (de-seeded, de-stemmed, minced)
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1/2 cup peanut or canola oil
- Put all 15 ingredients in a small food processor in the order in which they are listed. Blend for about 3 minutes until it is a gooey paste. Let sit for 15 minutes.
- While the marinade is resting, quarter a 3-4-lb chicken. When appropriate, rub the chicken all over with the marinade including rubbing under the skin wherever you can. Place the chicken into a large plastic bag and marinate overnight.
- The next day, take the chicken out of the refrigerator, leaving it in the bag, and let it get to room temperature for about 45 minutes. Preheat your oven or your grill during this time.
- Preheat your grill with the grates on it. When hot, brush the grates with a wire brush, then dip paper towels into oil and wipe them (use tongs) over the grates. Clean, oiled, bbq grates will keep the chicken from sticking.
- Remove the chicken from the bag, shake off extra marinade and grill over indirect heat until done. Meat will take about 40 minutes to cook, just turn it every 7-9 minutes, and move it away from flare-ups. The meat will appear pinkish when done so check the temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure that it is properly cooked. 165° is the number you are looking for.
- Preheat the oven to 375°. Remove the chicken from the bag, shake off extra marinade and place the chicken on a baking sheet making sure not to overlap any pieces. Bake for 70 minutes, then broil for 5 minutes just to make the skin crispy. Using a quick read thermometer, check the temperature in a few places in the chicken. 165° is the number you are looking for.
- Remove the chicken from the oven or grill and let it sit, off of the heat, on a cutting board, for 5 minutes. Then chop meat into pieces with a cleaver, and serve, on the bone, with crusty white bread and very cold Jamaican Red Stripe Beer.
This article and recipe first appeared on FoodPolitic.com on September 3rd, 2014.