The Quest for Authentic Jamaican Jerk
with Janet and Mike Johnston
July 17, 2014
Savory Spice Shop founders Mike and Janet Johnston took an expedition (vacation) into the jungles (warm, sunny beaches) of Jamaica to find a more authentic (delicious) jerk seasoning. This is the story of what they discovered!
Our Jamaican Jerk Seasoning has a loyal following and has been one of our top selling blends since we opened shop. Not just a customer favorite, Janet and I love it so much that we served it at our backyard wedding in 2006. I’d say we make it at least 20 times a year if not more and everyone we personally introduce to it just raves about it. That, as any cook knows, is a nice feeling. So when rumors started to spread that I was thinking about making some changes to this beloved blend, there was a bit of an uproar. I was told straight up that it was a bad idea and that I shouldn’t mess with success.
Why then, did I feel I needed to make the change? Maybe this will help explain.
We don’t get many folks from Jamaica into our shops, but when we do they always check out the Jerk. They try it, take their time and truly examine the flavor. Then comes: “This is close, probably the closest I’ve tried outside of Jamaica, but there is a little something missing”. Dang it! I’m a competitive person by nature and not only do I want my seasonings to be authentic, I want them to be as good as or better than the original. I’ve heard “a little something missing” maybe a half dozen times. And really, “a little something missing” doesn’t mean bad, but I knew that I didn’t have it quite right and that bothered me. The problem was that no one could really help me pinpoint the missing ingredient.
My first thought was that it must be the chile peppers we were using. I’ve known all along that authentic Jerk is made from scotch bonnet chile peppers, but getting those in dehydrated form was impossible at a commercial level. So when a sample of powdered dehydrated scotch bonnets landed on my desk early this year, I shot out of my office and headed straight to my production manager, Aimee Blaine.
“Aimee, please make me up a one pound batch of our Jerk using this in lieu of the habanero.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Scotch bonnets!” I proudly proclaimed.
Aimee has been with us since 2007, so she knew of my scotch bonnet quest. She gave me her happy face and jumped into action.
I can’t remember being more excited about tasting something. Had we figured it out? I tasted the sample, swirling it around in my mouth like a sommelier tasting a fine wine. It was damn good, but was it the difference maker? The answer was yes and no. The scotch bonnet provided a more intense flavor without added heat. This was nice and an improvement, but it wasn’t the key to that authentic Jerk flavor. The hunt would continue, but the Scotch Bonnets were here to stay.
Some of you may remember our trip to Barbados last year when Janet and I were searching for the elusive Bajan Seasoning. On that trip we meet Christine, the sweet lady who helped us understand the correct flavor profile of authentic Bajan. She also made an authentic Jerk paste that had a pungent yet pleasant finishing note. It wasn’t sweet, nor did the flavor linger, but it was a familiar flavor that neither of us could identify. I quizzed Christine and she said it was the one ingredient our Jerk doesn’t have - cloves. I have a lot of favorite spices but honestly, clove isn’t one of them. Although pleasant in aroma, I feel that cloves have a strong medicinal flavor that can easily overpower a dish. But, since I struck out on the chiles, I figured I’d give the cloves a shot.
Nope. Even a small amount of clove added to a one pound batch of Jerk was too strong and didn’t match the flavor of Christine’s version. More research was obviously required. This meant only one thing. Janet and I had to take another one for the team and head back to the Caribbean in search of answers.
The drive from Montego Bay to the cliffs of Negril took an hour and half and was filled with the salty smells of the Caribbean Sea, colorful sounds of school children and a steady reggae beat. The heat was searing, but a welcome reprieve from the blustery winter we left in Denver. We checked into our cliff-side cabana and took a couple days to unwind. Then, with our bearings and base tans intact, we ventured out to scout the area.
We decided the best way to hunt for the answer was by foot, so we sandaled up, loaded our backpack with essential provisions and off we went. Down a winding road, we found an open-air market loaded with locals selling their wares. Eyes peeled, we navigated our way in and out of the maze of tourist trappings but a Jerk stand was not to be found.
"To the beach!” we thought, and after making our way through thick brush we found ourselves with sand beneath our feet and the crystal clear, aqua colored Caribbean Sea before us. Seven miles of beach lay ahead, lined with hotels and restaurants; surely we would find a Jerk stand and locals who may spill their secrets.
Every stand we passed was empty and smokeless, with lids closed. After marching three miles or more, famished and in need of water, we aborted the beach and moved inland.
On our way inland we ran into a group of Rastafarians lounging around a gigantic cast iron pot which was suspended above a pile of hot embers. The hovering smoke cloud wasn’t necessarily coming from the cast iron pot, but assured us that they would be quite relaxed and friendly.
With a wave of their hands and inviting smiles they welcomed us to their party. After a kind offering was made and politely declined (clear heads were needed for the task at hand) we were able to conduct a brief interview and gain some local knowledge. First off, the pot contained porridge made from plantains (but some days made from peanuts) which sounded like something we needed to try. They also pointed us in the direction of a small joint where they believed we could find good Jerk chicken, down the alleyway and up the paved road. The porridge was tempting, but the elusive authentic Jerk was so close!
We found the restaurant and ordered up a single half order of Jerk chicken. Although hungry enough for two, we could see other Jerk stands up the road and planned to eat our way home. Hot off the grill, that chicken was good, but in a Louisiana style barbecue way. Disappointed, we paid our bill and headed up the road to hit the street side stands.
The Captain, as he called himself, greeted us with a warm smile. After some friendly but spirited negotiations we were able to secure a small sample of his chicken. Again, the offering was not Jerk but a repeat of the chicken we had just tried. It was time to interrogate The Captain on what was up with the Jerk in Jamaica!
We peppered him with questions and got some interesting information. Making real Jerk from fresh ingredients was too time consuming and expensive. Over the years it morphed into an Americanized barbecued chicken and “Jerk” stands started popping up all over. The original method for making authentic Jerk is very much like barbacoa, in that it is slow cooked and smoked in an underground pit. Also, the use of native woods and leaves like allspice and sweet wood were key to the authentic flavor. Could this be the answer? Tomorrow, like those covered pits, we’d need to dig down.
Back at the cabana, recovering from the day’s long excursion, we smelled it. That same aroma that often filled the air in our own backyard but had eluded us all day…it was undoubtedly, Jerk chicken. Launching from our loungers we bolted out the door.
I was on it like a scent hound on a fox. To our surprise it was close…very close. We didn’t even need to leave basecamp; it was coming from inside the property!
Two orders were set in front of us; Janet received the Jerk Alfredo, an interesting idea that we’d have to try at home, and I the traditional platter with rice and peas, plantains and bammy. The Jerk flavor was undeniable and the chef behind this knew exactly what they were doing. The next order of business was to meet this chef and persuade him or her to reveal the secret. With our customers in mind, we were prepared to use any means necessary!
Shane was not what we expected him to be. We pictured an older man who held the secrets only a seasoned chef could. But Shane was a young, chiseled man who looked more the part of a Jamaican football player than a chef. Would we ever be able to get him to share his recipe?
I approached the open-air kitchen with a confident stride, my mind set on the task at hand. Starting with compliments, I then navigated the conversation toward the information we desired.
“Shane, would you consider giving me a private cooking lesson?”
“Ya mon, no problem. Weh yuh want to learn?”
After some brief back and forth we coordinated a class that would consist of making Jerk, plantain porridge and Festival fritters.
As we prepped the chicken, Shane told us about his love of cooking and how he had learned most of his techniques from his elders. He may not be old himself, but he was clearly a man who respected those that came before and wanted to keep Jamaican traditions alive and authentic.
Similar to our experience in Barbados, we were told that seasonings were more of a paste than dry rub and that both fresh and dried ingredients are used. Into the bowl went fresh garlic, onion, scallions, scotch bonnet chiles, ginger and thyme. Next came the dry ingredients, which included a surprisingly large amount of allspice. I’ve always used allspice similarly to how I use cloves, sparingly, as it was my perception that their flavors can overtake a dish. Shane explained that it takes a lot of allspice to get the true Jamaican Jerk flavor. Confused, I told him that our friend Christine in Barbados said that the key was cloves. What Shane said next helped it all make sense.
“Allspice is sometimes referred to as Clove Pepper in the Caribbean.”
And there is was, like the authentic jerk that was under our nose at the resort the whole time; the answer was an ingredient already in our Jerk, just not enough of it.
I explained to Shane how helpful this was and how excited we were about being able to share this with our customers. Although happy to help, he felt there was more we needed to learn if we wanted to know true Jamaican Jerk chicken…then he led us to the grill.
Shane confirmed what the Captain had said about smoking the chicken over allspice wood and leaves and added that he sometimes tosses in a few allspice berries as well. An aromatic smoke billowed out when we opened the grill lid, smelling of sweet cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. These three flavor notes give allspice its name. We placed our seasoned Jerk chicken on the rack above those allspice wood embers, shut the lid and waited.
That was it. We had found what we had been searching for. Although familiar in flavor, that extra allspice was the key to an authentic Jamaican jerk chicken. Shane had done us a solid. He let us into his world of culinary history and its secrets and for that we will be forever grateful!
We truly enjoyed traveling to Jamaica, getting to know the people and getting to the bottom of how authentic jerk is made. We hope that you will come in and try our new Jerk seasoning; and for a limited time we are stocking allspice wood and leaves! We would be more than happy to pass on the lessons and teach you how to cook some authentic, smoky Caribbean wonderfulness in your own backyard!
Note: Allspice berries, also known as Pimento, have quite a confusing name. Often customers come into the shops in search of “a seasoning called allspice”. In fact, allspice is a single spice, but its flavor is described as a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. Mystery solved!