Smoky, spicy, sweet, and seriously hot, jerk chicken is the epitome of Jamaican food. Seasoned with allspice, thyme, Scotch bonnets and many other ingredients, this jerk chicken is sure to pack a punch.
Jerk chicken easily is one of the world’s greatest barbecued meats. Every bite of succulent chicken brings an explosion of flavors and sensations. The seasoning is packed with fragrant spices, subtle sweetness, spicy hot peppers, and bright lime while the cooking process provides a smoky aroma.
The word “jerk” encompasses the seasoning as well as the style of cooking a meat. One can trace the roots of jerk seasoning back to Africa and the Arawak Indians who were the indigenous people of Jamaica. Around the 1650’s, slaves that were brought over to Jamaica by the British escaped into the mountains, becoming known as the Maroons. Because they always were in short supply of food, the slaves learned how to preserve the meat they caught from the Arawak Indians. Using salt, peppers, and spices native to the island, the Maroons preserved their meat and used their own cooking technique of smoking food in pits. Over time, the spices and seasoning used evolved to what we know today as jerk. The people of Jamaica take pride in their jerk, not only because it tastes delicious, but also because it reminds them of the resourcefulness and courage of the Maroons.
While the seasonings for jerk chicken mainly stay the same, the consistency tends to change. Some cooks like to make jerk chicken with a dry rub while others like to use soy sauce or vinegar to create a marinade. True jerk fanatics are also very particular about the cooking process. Real jerk is cooked on allspice – Jamaicans call it pimento – wood. The whole allspice tree is used from the wood to the berries to the leaves, all giving the meat its peppery, smoky flavor. The jerk chicken is typically served with some sweet, starchy food like sweet potatoes, festival (Jamaican version of a hush puppy), or rice and peas.
A couple notes when it comes to this recipe. As you can probably tell from the pictures, I used chicken breast when making this recipe instead of using chicken leg with the bone-in and skin-on. I know, I know. If anyone, I should be the one following the recipe, but in my defense, I only had chicken breast at home and didn’t want to go out and get more chicken. However, I completely stand by the recipe when I say that chicken legs/thighs should be used. An avid believer in dark meat, I believe that chicken legs and thighs not only have better flavor, but also don’t dry out as easily as breast meat does. The reason the bones and skin should stay on the meat is because they also provide loads of flavor, and the skin crisps up, providing a nice texture contrast.
WARNING!! Scotch bonnet peppers are INSANELY hot. I have never seen nor used a Scotch bonnet pepper before this recipe so I was curious about how hot these peppers actually were. Mistake #1: I touched the pepper with my bare hands while I was cutting it open. Mistake #2: After cutting the pepper, I licked my finger to see how spicy it was. Mistake #3: I didn’t have a glass of milk ready, so my mouth had to endure 30 seconds of an agonizing burn while I scrambled for a glass and the milk jug. Seriously, don’t mess around with this stuff. Growing up in an Asian household, I have a pretty good spice tolerance, but for this recipe I could only handle one Scotch bonnet pepper. After doing a bit of research, I found out that a Scotch bonnet is like the Caribbean equivalent of a habanero as the have a very similar spice level. A Scotch bonnet can be up to 140 times spicier than a jalapeno! When handling the Scotch bonnet, I learned my lesson and now refuse to touch the thing. The best way deal with the pepper is to either use tongs or disposable plastic gloves when cutting the pepper open and removing the seeds. If you dare to use your own hands, be extremely careful afterwards. Wash your hands multiple times and avoid coming close to touching your eyes at all costs. You have been warned.
- 4 whole chicken legs or 3 lb chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on
- 3 scallions, roughly chopped
- 2 shallots, peeled and halved
- 1-2 Scotch bonnet chili peppers, seeds removed
- 2-inch piece ginger, peeled
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 ½ tsp. dried thyme
- 1 tbsp. allspice
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. brown sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 ½ tsp. black pepper
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 ½ tsp. white or apple cider vinegar
- Juice of 1 lime
- Chopped scallions for garnish
Rice and Peas
- ½ cup white rice
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup coconut milk
- ½ can pigeon peas or kidney beans
- Salt to taste
Starting the day before, pat the chicken dry with a paper towel. Place the other ingredients in a food processor or a blender and pulse until they combine to form a coarse paste. Massage the chicken with the paste, and make sure to get it under the skin. Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. Bring the chicken to room temperature before cooking.
For grilling: Preheat grill to medium heat. Add 2 handfuls of soaked allspice/pimento chips or any other aromatic wood chip to the coals and close the grill. When thick white smoke becomes visible, place the chicken on the grill, skin side up. Cover and leave grill undisturbed for 30-35 minutes. After 30-35 minutes of cooking, check the chicken for doneness. The skin should be a dark, golden-brown and the juices should be completely clear.
For roasting: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the chicken in a roasting dish and let it cook in the upper third of the oven for 45 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked through and is a deep golden-brown.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the rice and peas. Wash the rice briefly in cold water to remove the excess starch. Combine the rice, water, coconut milk, pigeon peas/beans, and salt in a medium size saucepan and bring to a boil on medium heat. Cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to low, and let the rice cook for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes, use a fork to fluff the rice.
On a serving platter, create a bed of rice for the chicken to sit on top of and sprinkle with the chopped scallions. Serve while hot.
So Worth It
“What?! You’re traveling to Jamaica by yourself!?” my friend Britt exclaimed incredulously, her voice pitching high over the phone.
“That is what I said,” I replied rolling my eyes at her reaction even though I knew she couldn’t see me. “I’m in the airport right now.”
“Hadley, you are absolutely insane! You do know that Jamaica is the most dangerous place for a solo woman to visit, right?”
“Actually, Jamaica has the fifth highest murder rate, but yes I do know that, Britt. Look, I’ll be fine. I’ve read enough websites and books to know I need to be cautious. I’m sending you my itinerary and will check in here and there. Don’t worry unless I go MIA. I’ll text you whenever I can.”
I was getting tired of reassuring everyone that I will be okay after telling them I’m visiting Jamaica. Yeah, it might not be the safest place to go in the world, but I’m not going to let that ruin the entire country for me. I’ve also heard that Jamaica has amazing food, music and culture. Plus, the tropical island is gorgeous. I’ve been planning and saving up for this trip since the end of junior year in college, and now that I’ve graduated, I’m so excited to go. No one’s going to ruin that for me.
“Hadley!” Britt’s voice blared out of my phone, jolting me out of my thoughts.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
I heard her huff exasperated. “You aren’t even listening to me. Well, it looks like I can’t convince you to cancel your plans or take someone else with you. Just promise me you’ll be safe. If anything sketchy happens, you call someone right away. And if I don’t hear or get a text from you every few hours, I’m gonna blow up your phone or alert someone that you’ve been kidnapped.”
“Yes ma’am,” I saluted and then said, “You’re gonna be so jealous after you see how amazing this trip will be.”
“Whatever. Just come back in one piece. I don’t want to explain to your parents at your funeral why I couldn’t stop you from going.”
“Shut up. Don’t freak them out more than they already are. But seriously, I’ll be okay. I’m a smart, strong, independent woman. I’ll update you on everything.” The airport announcement for boarding my plane echoed over the intercom speakers. “Look, Britt, I gotta go board my plane. Love you!”
“Love you too! Don’t die,” she finally responded before I hung up, grabbed my luggage, and headed into the plane.
Hello Jamaica, I thought as I stepped off the plane and squinted behind my sunglasses at the bright sun. Even though it was the end of May, it was already in the 90’s and the humidity was insane. Lucky for me, the airport I flew into was a walking distance to the hotel I was staying at. Looking at the map on my phone, I headed in the direction of the hotel.
There were many people hustling along the road. Many looked like tourists, but there was a decent number of natives in the mix. I noted that the roads were in pretty terrible condition and was thankful I chose not to rent a car for transportation. And I thought the roads in Virginia was bad.
Along the sides of the road, there were so many touristy stands selling trinkets and sorts, but what caught my attention was the smoky, spicy aroma wafting from a red, run-down looking shop. It smelled absolutely delicious, and I hadn’t had anything to eat in hours except a meager airplane package of peanuts.
As I altered my route towards the delicious smell, I made I contact with a group of three men walking on the other side of the road. Immediately, catcalls and laughing ensured, and they sauntered over towards me. My grip tightened on my bags as I thought, don’t panic. Be firm and confident. Strong, independent woman.
“Hey pretty lady,” one said with a thick Jamaican accent, grinning widely. “Is this your first time on the island?”
“No,” I lied easily. “I’ve been here multiple times before.”
“Where are you staying?” another asked.
“Over there.” I vaguely gestured to a cluster of hotel buildings.
“You look like you could use some fun,” the other laughed, nudging his companions. “How about –”
“Look,” I interrupted calmly. “I appreciate it, but I’ve been through here many times before so please don’t try to sell me anything. I’m really not interested.”
They looked at each other and then shrugged good-naturedly. “That’s cool, man,” the first one responded. They all held out their fists for me to fist bump, winked, and then walked away.
Nicely done, I commended myself, focusing my attention back on getting food. As I stepped up to the shop, I was greeted by a woman who I assumed ran the shop. She had skin as dark as black coffee, warm friendly eyes, and curly hair pulled back by a headband. She wore jean shorts, a t-shirt, and a black apron, and as she saw me approach, she quickly beckoned me over.
“You want to have the best jerk chicken on the island?” she asked amicably. Before I could answer, she continued, saying, “Come, come. Sit, and I will get you a plate.” She proceeded to step into the shop yelling something unintelligible, and I realized there was someone in the back of the shop tending to the fire where all the smoke and good smells were coming from. All the pots and pans looked stained from charcoal and seriously worn down. It probably wasn’t the cleanest place, and I positive this place would be shut down because of sanitation reasons if it was in the U.S. However, it’s part of the cultural experience, and I was beyond excited to try some authentic jerk.
A few minutes later, the woman came back out with a metal plate brimming with food and set it down in front of me. She sat down next to me and motioned me to go ahead and dig in. I first whipped out my phone, snapped a couple pictures, and set it to Britt. The plate looked and smelled absolutely amazing. There were two fire-blackened chicken legs sitting on top of a bed of rice with some bean-looking things in it and grilled pineapple and lemon wedges served on the side.
“This is our recipe of jerk chicken and rice and peas. It’s our islands most famous dish,” the woman informed me. “The chicken is smoked on pimento wood, and the rice is made with coconut milk. Go ahead and try it!”
I snagged the fork and dug into the chicken. My first bite was an explosion of flavor. Sweet, hot, smoky, savory, tangy. It hit everything perfectly. “This is so good!” I exclaimed before sampling the rice. It was like a sweet, soothing compliment to the fierce chicken. “Wow, the Americanized jerk cannot compare to this.”
“Of course not! If you want the real thing, you must visit Jamaica. No one can imitate this. Everyone should visit just for this,” she boasted proudly.
“Trust me,” I grinned, biting into another piece. “I am already so glad I did.”