Jamaican food is known across the world for its unique and exotic flavor. It has influences from all over the globe including Spanish, British, East Indian, West African, Portuguese, Chinese, French and the Dutch. The Spanish arrived in the late 1400s and kicked out the natives (the Arawak Indians, aka Tainos) while bringing in slaves from Africa along with their cooking techniques and flavors. Spanish Jews arrived, then the English, then laborer immigrants from China and East India. Needless to say, each new wave of culture brought with it a unique cuisine which then melded into the “traditional” Jamaican cuisine that exists now.
There are multiple versions of what “jerk” is and where it originated. One school of thought believes it refers to the seasoning and cooking style derived from the Cormantee tribes in Africa, and was imported when slaves came to Jamaica. Another version is that Jerk is a Spanish word from the Peruvian word charqui, a word for dried strips of meat like what we call Jerky, in much of the world. The word started as a noun and then became a verb as in “Jerking” which meant to poke holes in the meat so the spices could permeate the meat.
Either way, the original jerk had to do with the preservation of the meat with spices. It has evolved into a blend of spices and a method of cooking which usually involves cooking over a hot flame or BBQ.
These days, jerk “huts” are all over the Caribbean Islands, and you can find them by the lovely smell. Typically, they are octogonal or circular shacks built around a telephone pole to support the thatched roof. Cooking is outside as well as dining. The legendary mecca for jerk is Boston Beach on the northeastern end of Jamaica. Here most of the vendors have built huts over fires directly on the beach like the Maroons that came before them. The meat is cooked on pimento wood or sheets of metal used as griddles and sometimes covered with plantain leaves.
Much like Reggae music, “jerk” is not only something that is distinctly Jamaican, but also an expression of harmony, pride and rich cultural history.