I spent a couple of weeks in Jamaica a decade or so ago, and my primary goals were to spend a fair amount of time in the hammock, get loco on the local vegetation, and eat some new foods. Jerk chicken I’d had before at restaurants in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, featuring varying degrees of authenticity and quality. I’d never had breadfruit or ackee or callaloo or curried goat and was eager to try these and other unique indigenous things.
|Hardly my best picture, but hey! It’s a freakin’ phone.|
While there I had wonderful meat patties in a simple pastry crust, like a turnover. I ate jerk pork, curried goat, and stewed oxtails. I fell in love with a simple, hard tack-type cracker called jack corn, which was a bit like a tough graham cracker made with coconut oil. Breadfruit was bland but interesting. Callaloo was fantastic, a sauteed or steamed spinachy green vegetable that I later discovered was amaranth. I enjoyed deviled river crabs and grilled spiny lobsters from the sea. I ate conch fritters and pineapple and papaya and fantastic grilled fish escabeche. I drank loads and loads of Ting, Red Stripe, and Appleton Rum. I drank tea laced with psychedelic mushrooms and watched the moon set scintillating over the Caribbean (I was a lot younger then and more prone to such things).
Ackee was utterly fascinating to me — it’s a vegetable-like fruit pod that is highly toxic if not properly prepared, the pale yellow meat of which resembles eggy brain matter. This is sauteed with salt cod and scotch bonnet peppers for a killer breakfast (and the national dish). I remember this burned-out old Rastaman named Jabba who made excellent ackee pies (like a handheld turnover) which made for a great snack with a Red Stripe beer and giant spliff. Ackee is not available here in America except in limited quantities in canned form, which I’ve tried but found lacking.
But the best food I ate was jerk chicken cooked slowly over hardwood in a make-shift grill constructed of a metal grate over half an old oil drum, which is extremely commonplace in this third-world country. While there I made a point of eating jerk chicken at several different places, just to get an idea of how they prepared it. I’m certain most places used a good jarred marinade, but at least a couple jerk joints I went to did it the old-school way, with a classic marinade made of pureed green onions, scotch bonnets, garlic, some lime juice, a bit of sugar, fresh thyme, and ground allspice, which locally they referred to as pimento. Some of the more authentic places apparently put leaves and branches of the pimento bush (tree?) into the fire to enhance that lovely aromatic spice. The best chicken I ate there (at a sign-less place with a name I can’t remember) was fall-apart tender, spicy, sweet, smokey, charred, and altogether fantastic.
|The first flip on the grill.|
When I got home I researched dozens of recipes and finally came up with my own jerk chicken recipe that replicated the best I had in Jamaica. I added a bit of fresh ginger, I had to substitute habanero peppers since scotch bonnets are (virtually) unavailable for the average consumer, I threw in some cilantro for a fresher herbal component. The soy sauce in the recipe is fairly common as there is a small Chinese population in Jamaica, but the hoisin sauce is another liberty of mine. I think this recipe is as good as or equal to the best chicken I had in Jamaica.
I include an easy recipe for a quick pineapple sauce to serve with the chicken. I didn’t have anything like this in Jamaica, but fruit salsas seemed common there.
I recommend you cook this over a charcoal grill. You can sprinkle a little ground allspice onto the coals to get some of that spiced aroma happening. You’ll need to start a hot fire to get a decent crust on the skin, and then allow the fire to dimish to low to finish the chicken. If you’re out of coals (like I was a few days ago) a propane grill works fine, but again, start high and finish low. You might want to finish the chicken over indirect heat so it cooks thoroughly without drying out.
You’re Gonna Need, Mon!
4 scallions, chopped
6 garlic cloves
2/3 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
3 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon molasses
juice of one lime
6 springs of fresh thyme, leaves only and stems discarded
2 tablespoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
6 chicken legs
1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
pinch black pepper
a couple dashes of hot sauce
Do Dis Tings, Mon:
Make the marinade for the chicken by blending until thoroughly combined into a smooth paste: scallions, garlic, cilantro, spicy peppers, soy sauce, oil, hoisin, sugar, molasses, lime juice, fresh thyme, and dried spices. Put chicken into a heavy zip bag and pour marinade over chicken. Seal bag and flip the bag around a bit to circulate the marinade. Put on a plate and marinate the chicken, flipping the bag every once in a while, for eight hours up to two days.
Before you’re ready to grill, take the chicken out of the fridge and allow it come to room temperature for about an hour. When your grill is hot (medium-high heat) remove chicken from the marinade and wipe off the excess. Oil grill very well before putting down your chicken legs. I also spray the chicken with some Pam on both sides to prevent it from sticking. Start skin-side down and grill that side for about eight minutes, or until it’s got some good grill marks. Flip chicken over and grill the other side for ten minutes.
Now move the chicken off the high flame and cook over a lower heat for another 30 to 40 minutes, periodically flipping it so that it cooks uniformly. While the chicken grills make the pineapple sauce by blending all the ingredients until smooth. It’ll look like the picture below.
|Yummy pineapple sauce.|
The chicken is fully cooked when you can wiggle the leg and the joint feels a little loose. Let the chicken rest for ten minutes before eating. Serve with rice and a veggie (Regina and I ate it with this amazing lightly curried okra!), drizzle some pineapple sauce over it, and enjoy! A Red Stripe beer wouldn’t be inappropriate.
|The chicken is perfectly charred.|
|A little pineapple sauce slathered over a deliciously moist hunk of jerk chicken, slightly blurry.|
Hope you like this recipe. Thanks again, noble reader, for taking the time.