Just where did the “jerk” come from in Jamaican jerk?

After an Isle of Palms reader requested a recipe for the island’s famous jerk chicken, it sent me on a quest to find out.

Most accounts trace jerk to the Spanish word charqui, a term for jerked or dried meat. But in the Caribbean, jerk refers to both a spice mixture and a cooking technique.

Many food historians be- lieve the jerk tradition was started by West African Cormantee slaves who escaped the Spanish and British in the mid-1600s and found refuge in the island’s mountains, mixing with the resident Indians.

The two core ingredients are allspice, called pimento in Jamaica; and Scotch bonnet peppers, which look like shrunken heads and are about as fiery as a habanero, although somewhat fruitier.

Other common ingredients include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic and salt.

The jerk spice mix can be applied to the meat as a dry rub or used in a wet marinade. Then the meat is cooked over a fire (pimento wood is traditional). The heat burnishes the spices on the surface into a mahogany-colored crust, a barbecue lover’s dream.

In Jamaica, the cooking has evolved over time from pits to halved and hinged steel drums, a common sight today along the roadsides. Charcoal is the fuel of choice these days.

Thanks to Ethel Inabinett of Ravenel for sending a recipe, which called for a store-bought spice mix. But to better understand jerk from start to finish, I turned to “The Grilling Book: The Definitive Guide From Bon Appetit” (Andrews McMeel, 2013).

As always, be very careful when working with hot peppers. You are advised to wear food-handling gloves.

Jerk Chicken

4 servings


1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 medium red onion, chopped

12 garlic cloves

10 Scotch bonnet or 15 small habanero chilies, stemmed and seeded

8 scallions, white and pale green parts only, chopped

1 (3-inch) piece ginger, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

11/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

11/2 tablespoons whole allspice

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon powdered adobo seasoning

1/2 teaspoon Maggi Liquid Seasoning

Vegetable oil, for brushing


Pierce chicken all over with the tip of a small knife; transfer to a large bowl. Puree onion, next 10 ingredients and 3/4 cup water in a blender until smooth. Reserve 1 cup for dipping sauce if desired. Pour remaining marinade over chicken; massage into chicken. Cover; chill for at least 1 day and up to 2 days.

Let chicken sit at room temperature for 1 hour before cooking. Build a medium-low fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to medium. Brush grill grate with oil. Place chicken on grill, skin side up. Cover grill and cook, turning occasionally, until skin is crisp and nicely charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest parts of the chicken registers 165 degrees, 30 to 45 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a platter and tent loosely with foil; let stand for 10 minutes. Serve with reserved marinade as a sauce, if desired.

Sharon Cook of Charleston passes along a recipe from Simply Recipes online.

Jerk Chicken

Serves 6 to 8


1/2 cup malt vinegar (or white vinegar)

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 Scotch bonnet peppers (or habaneros), with seeds, chopped

1 red onion, chopped

4 green onion tops, chopped

1 tablespoon dried thyme or 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

4 teaspoons ground allspice

4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

4 teaspoons ground nutmeg

4 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons molasses

1 (5 or 6 pound) roasting chicken, cut in half, lengthwise

1/2 cup lime juice

Salt and pepper


Safety note: Wear protective gloves while handling the chilies and the jerk paste.

Put vinegar, rum, hot peppers, onion, green onion tops, thyme, olive oil, salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and molasses into a blender. Pulse until mostly smooth.

Place chicken in a large freezer bag, or in a large roasting pan or baking dish. Pour lime juice over the chicken and coat well. Add the jerk paste to the chicken pieces and coat well. Seal the bag or cover the chicken in the pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to cook the chicken, remove chicken from the marinade bag or pan. Put the remaining marinade into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to use as a basting sauce for the chicken. If you want, you can reserve a little of the marinade (once boiled for 10 minutes since it has been in contact with raw chicken) to serve with the chicken or to mix with some ketchup and a dash of soy sauce for a serving sauce.

Preheat grill to medium high. Sprinkle chicken halves with salt and pepper. Place chicken halves, skin side down on the grill grates. Cover. Cook for approximately 1 hour, keeping the internal grill temperature between 350 and 400 degrees, turning the chickens occasionally and basting with marinade, until the chicken halves are cooked through. The chicken is done when the juices run clear (not pink) when a knife tip is inserted into both the chicken breast and thigh, about 165-170 degrees. Transfer chicken to platter. Tent loosely with foil to keep warm and let stand 15 minutes.

Cut chicken into pieces. Suggestion: Serve with black beans and rice.

We also found a recipe in “Weber’s Time to Grill” (2011) by Jamie Purviance that is less traditional — it uses pork tenderloin — and is served with a bright summer salsa.

Jerk Pork Medallions With Grilled Corn and Cucumber Salsa

Serves 4

For the salsa:

2 ears fresh corn, husked

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 English cucumber, cut into medium dice (about 11/2 cups)

1/2 medium red bell pepper, finely diced

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

For the jerk paste:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 pork tenderloins, each 3/4 to 1 pound, trimmed of excess fat and silver skin


Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350-450 degrees).

Lightly brush the ears of corn with oil. Brush the cooking grates clean.

Grill the corn over direct medium heat, with the lid closed as much as possible, until the corn is browned in spots and tender, 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally.

Remove from the grill and, when cool enough to handle, cut the corn kernels off the cobs into a medium bowl. Add the remaining salsa ingredients to the bowl, including 2 tablespoons oil, and set aside until ready to use.

In a small bowl mix the paste ingredients.

Cut off the thin, tapered end from each tenderloin and reserve for another use, or grill along with the medallions. Cut each tenderloin crosswise into six equal pieces, each about 11/2 inches thick.

Brush the paste all over the medallions, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes before grilling.

Grill the medallions over direct medium heat with the lid closed as much as possible, until the outsides are evenly seared and the centers are barely pink, 4 to 6 minutes, turning once.

Remove from the grill and let rest for 3 to 5 minutes. Serve warm with the salsa.

Who’s got the recipe?

A coworker would like to know how to make Southern-style lima beans.

Looking for a recipe or have one to share? Reach Features Editor Teresa Taylor at food@postandcourier.com or 937-4886.