Arts, Culture & Media

For the grill: Jerk chicken, a Jamaican staple that has traveled the world

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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George Whitehead, Jr. of Dorchester, Mass. presents his version of jerk chicken. “Some people make jerk chicken too hot and spicy, and that is not enjoyable or how it’s made. It has to be tender and savory,” he says.

Credit:

Marcelle Hutchins

This Fourth of July, you're probably thinking about celebrating the US with a little BBQ. But not all BBQ is just red, white and blue.

Take jerk. Jerk is Jamaica to the bone. Aromatic and smoky, sweet but insistently hot.

For chef George Whitehead Jr., it’s both tradition and a space to innovate.

The word “jerk” has roots in “charqui,” a Spanish word for dry meat. It’s a dish that’s credited to escaped slaves in the Caribbean who taught the indigenous Taino their method of smoking food in pits dug into the earth.

“My grandmother taught me many dishes, including how to cook and grill jerk chicken,” says Whitehead.

She was one of Whitehead’s early culinary influences, and encouraged him to develop his own signature version of jerk. He opened Jerk Jamaican Fine Dining and Take-Out Restaurant in Dorchester, Massachusetts, last year to offer a fresh take on the Caribbean dish.

Whitehead is a 44-year-old New York native. His parents were among the large numbers of Jamaicans who came to the US after migration policies changed in the 1960s.

“Everywhere you go, somebody does jerk chicken different. They take something out and put something in,” says Whitehead. “Some people make jerk chicken too hot and spicy, and that is not enjoyable or how it’s made. It has to be tender and savory.”

While jerk's roots are undeniably Jamaican, the question of who gets to cook other people's food can be squishy — just like the question of who gets to tell other people's stories. For some, the idea of eating "ethnic cuisine" not cooked by someone of that ethnicity can feel like a form of cultural theft. (Exhibit A: Recently, a simple recipe for jerk chicken posted on Facebook by the food video company Tastemade garnered comments like, “This imitation is an insult to my heritage.”)

Today, you can buy jerk chicken, jerk fish, even jerk lobster. For Whitehead, there’s no one way to prepare it.

“From my experience and years as a chef, I put a spin on your basic recipe for making jerk chicken,” Whitehead said. “I add ketchup and barbecue sauce and let it marinate for hours, sometimes days.”  

Jerk chicken, made by Whitehead, begins with a proprietary spice blend. But lucky for us, he’s agreed to share it. If you hurry, you can still make some for dinner today.

George Whitehead’s Jerk Chicken

Plate of jerk chicken with rice

Lucky you. It’s only three steps to make George Whitehead’s jerk chicken.

Credit:

Marcelle Hutchins

Ingredients

4 chicken quarters, washed in a mixture of vinegar and water

1 tablespoon allspice seasoning

1 pepper, habanero or scotch bonnet

¼ cup ketchup

3 tablespoons barbecue sauce

3 stalks scallion

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

3 tablespoons seasoning salt, such as Lawry’s

 

Steps

Combine allspice seasoning, pepper, scallion, thyme, ketchup and barbecue sauce in a blender or food processor.

Using a thin knife, cut a lengthwise pocket through the chicken before slathering it with seasoning salt and spice mixture. Refrigerate 30 minutes to an hour.

Prepare a charcoal grill. Let the chicken cook for 30 to 45 minutes, flipping it to let both sides cook. Serve hot or warm, with Jamaican hard dough bread, or rice and beans with steamed vegetables.

(Serves four.)

What did you put on the grill for the holiday? Tell us about your favorite recipes, in the comments section.