In London the Notting Hill Carnival is an annual end-of-summer festival of Caribbean culture giving Londoners a reason to dance, drink a little rum and eat jerk in this gentrified suburb (bomb-ridden and rundown after WWII, many Caribbean immigrants found accommodation here when they were unwelcome elsewhere; a 2-bed pad now sells for around £1 million).
At carnival, floats saunter along the parade carrying the beautiful, the flouro and the feathered; visitors strut to makeshift sound systems, while more spectators angle for views from the window sills of Regency townhouses. And floating among it all is the veil of blue-hued smoke from jerk chicken cooking on steel drums.
In the United States jerk barbecue has become a flavour of summer too: see this article on jerk in the New York Times.
Jerk chicken is a product of beautiful Jamaica’s tormented history. The Spanish introduced slavery when they started bringing captured Africans to work on plantations in the 1500s. This appalling system was then continued by the British after they ruled Jamaica from 1655.
When slaves occasionally managed to escape the plantations they headed for the Blue Mountains to avoid recapture. Known as maroons and living an elusive existence, they are widely credited with developing jerk. (Earlier inhabitants of the island, the Taino, largely wiped out by European diseases, also had smoking techniques for preserving meat).
Wild hogs lived in the forests and these were hunted, seasoned and barbecued by maroons. They used the ingredients available in the island’s interior to develop the combination of pepper heat, spice, sweetness and smoke that sets jerk apart.
The heat in the sauce comes from the Scotch bonnet, a chilli pepper found in the West Indies with a rating of up to 350,000 units on the Scoville heat scale (compared to 8000 for a jalapeno). It’s also meant to have a sweet fruitiness (although through that burn factor, who’s picking this out?)
The other essential seasoning is allspice, so-named because of the cinnamon, clove and nutmeg flavours the little berries bundle. Most of the world’s allspice (from the pimento tree) comes from Jamaica.
Thyme and a range of other seasonings at the disposal of the cook make up a jerk sauce, which is then used to marinate and baste the meat.
Meat was historically cooked over a lattice of pimento wood, imbuing the spicy notes through the smoke (see this article on fieryfoods.com with visiting writers’ observations of jerk barbecues through the centuries).
How to make jerk chicken
We had a Jamaican barbecue to celebrate our national day, Waitangi Day (February 6). On this cloudless high summer holiday the distance between New Zealand and the Caribbean didn’t feel so far…
The jerk chicken we made, like everything else at our Jamaican barbecue, came from the authoritative www.cooklikeajamaican.com. It’s a mother-and-daughter site that includes how-to videos and lots of tips.
We found it very difficult to source Scotch Bonnets, trying a couple of local chilli suppliers direct. Some are growing them but said they weren’t ready in early February. Habanero was the recommended substitute, but again we had trouble sourcing these. We just went with birds eye chilli as they are fairly hot.
Where to eat jerk chicken in Auckland
Atico Cucina is a Caribbean restaurant in Victoria Park Market that serves jerk chicken with a range of Jamaican sides ($29 on the mains menu). They opened in late 2011 and have good reviews from then.
19 Drake Street (Victoria Park Quarter), Freemans Bay, Auckland
Phone 09 354 4030