Hey, mon. If you haven’t noticed, a flavorexplosion from the Caribbean is heating up American cuisine.
It’s spicy. Really, really spicy. Mouthtingling, reach-for-the-Red-Stripe-lager spicy.
And as grilling season fires up, a lot of Americans will reach for this super-sizzling Jamaican rub, better known as jerk seasoning.
"Jerk is Jamaican barbecue," says Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue Bible." "I’ve eaten the island’s national dish and I can tell you this much: It hurts."
The raw materials for jerk — the incendiary Scotch bonnet (the world’s hottest chili pepper, up to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño), pimento berry (Jamaican allspice), thyme, wild cinnamon and scallions — are mixed with garlic powder, soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar and a generous measure of sea salt to make a thick paste. The fiery paste is then put on meat, traditionally pork and chicken.
But Americans have put their own stamp on it.
"In recent years, the traditional jerk pork and jerk chicken have given way to newfangled creations such as jerk snapper, jerk lobster, jerk pasta and even jerk vegetables," Raichlen says. "That’s what I love about food. Jerk seasoning has ridden through America on the back of reggae music. It’s America meets Jamaica."
The first taste of authentic jerk-seasoned food can be an eye opener.
"What most people are surprised by is how salty and how hot food seasoned with jerk seasoning is," Raichlen says.
Typically, though, the jerk seasoning and recipes used in the United States will use less salt and milder peppers, so it won’tbeasspicy.
"As happens often when foods cross cultures, they get watered down and that, to some extent, is what has happened to jerk seasoning (in America)," Raichlen says.
By way of history, jerk is linked to the Maroons, runaway African slaves who settled in eastern Jamaica in the late 17 th century. The Maroons were able to preserve meats by rubbing them with ahot paste of salt, spices and the Scotch bonnet chilies, then smoking the meat.
"The term ‘jerk’ is from a Jamaican patois word, juk, meaning ‘to stab’ or ‘stick with a sharp implement,’ " Raichlen says.
"First a wild boar was jukked— killed — then jukked a second time to make lots of holes where the spicy mix was rubbed in. This would speed up the absorption of the seasoning."
But the Maroons weren’t the only ones who had a hand in jerk seasoning.
"It’s a crazy quilt of flavors, paying homage to the many cultures and cuisines that have left their mark on the Caribbean region," says Rick Rodgers, author of "Barbecues 101."
Maybe that’s why it has so much appeal in another melting pot, the United States. Alfred Kong, a Jamaican native whocooks at the Jamaican Kitchen in Miami, Fla., has seen an increase in jerked foods’ popularity.
"When I opened this restaurant 18 years ago, I was about the only one serving jerk pork and chicken," he says. "And, my only customers were other Jamaicans. Now there are dozens of restaurants here serving jerked foods and my customers have changed. We have a lot of Hispanics who come for our spicy food."
Joel Gregory, publisher of Chile Pepper magazine, gauges the interest by the growth in the number of companies selling jerk seasoning mixes.
"Jerk seasoning has gone mainstream," he says. "There are a number of brands that are advertised in our magazine."
If you want togowith a ready-made jerk spice, Raichlen recommends two brands: Busha Browne or Walker’s Wood. Both may be ordered online from www.cosmicchile. com/thejerks.html.
One problem: Making authentic jerk can be difficult, because it uses a laundry list of exotic ingredients. Rodgers has created a more accessible recipe, Montego Bay Jerk Seasoning (see below left).
No matter which recipe you choose, Rodgers prefers Scotch bonnet peppers for the best flavor. But if you use them, watch out for the heat.
"Be sure to wear rubber gloves when applying this paste to the food," Rodgers says.