The potent pull of Jamaican jerk chicken

Sun Staff

At 9 in the morning, the smoke is already rising from the grill behind Carolyn's Café in Ridgely's Delight.

Chef Ras Doobie has arrived at the restaurant early to get his charcoal-and-wood fire just right. It's a daily, time-consuming ritual. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

Doobie takes jerk chicken seriously. His leg-and-thigh quarters have marinated all night in his secret seasonings, a recipe handed down by his mother. Now, they must be cooked outdoors over a medium-hot, smoky fire - or else the result wouldn't be jerk chicken at all.

"It's the traditional way," says the 43-year-old native Jamaican who has been cooking professionally for 25 years. "These are the things you have to learn how to do."

Ninety minutes later, the chef's efforts have paid off. The chicken has cooked slowly and perfectly - crisp on the outside, but juicy to the bone. It is hot and spicy with hints of allspice, scallions, thyme and the most potent ingredient of all, fresh Scotch bonnet chile peppers.

This chicken is nothing like the all-too-common stuff labeled jerk chicken in bar menus - little bits of skinless chicken breast rolled in some kind of acrid dry rub and overcooked. The taste of the real thing is robust, yet complex, exotic and lively.

Bite into Ras Doobie's jerk chicken, and you will understand why Jamaican barbecue is prized as some of the best grilled food you will find anywhere.

"Jerk is one of the world's truly great barbecues," says Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible (Workman, 1998, $18.95). "Certainly, it's in the top 10 if you're inclined to make such a list. It is the perfect cooking method with the perfect seasoning, matched to a perfect climate and place."

A native Baltimorean, Raichlen says he, too, was blown away when he first traveled to Jamaica to try firsthand the fruits of the native barbecue pits. He likens it to a military engagement - the peppers are the saturation bombing that make way for the garlic and thyme and allspice, the "foot soldiers who then come marching in."

Of course, jerk marinade can be used on other things besides chicken. Pork, beef and fish are all commonly jerked (Jamaicans use the word as both noun and verb).

The term jerk is thought to be derived from an English translation of the Spanish word charqui, or preserved meat. The techniques of jerk suggest it may have started out as a way to preserve wild boar - salting and smoking the meat.

Like much of Caribbean cooking, it is a multicultural affair. African, Spanish and native Indian influences are evident. There is even an Asian influence - soy sauce has become a common addition to jerk seasoning.

In Jamaica, barbecue has always been an informal, down-home form of cooking with jerked meat and fish sold at the roadside from thatch-roofed huts, says Helen Willinsky, an island native and Caribbean cookbook author now living in Florida. Tourists often get the chance to choose what they want directly from an open-pit fire.

Over the past several decades, jerk has become a worldwide cuisine - often to its detriment. Rare is the grocery store that doesn't carry some form of prepared jerk spices in the gourmet aisle, but most are a pale imitation of the real thing.

"It's the single most bastardized dish in the entire world," says Chris Schlesinger, author of The Thrill of the Grill (Morrow, 1990, $30), and a food columnist for The New York Times. "It's more than spicing. It's a technique, too."

On that point, Chef Doobie would emphatically agree. Even the exact components of the fire he keeps in his drum-shaped grill are a trade secret. In Jamaica, the wood of the allspice or what Jamaicans call pimento tree is often used.

He likes his fire at about 350 degrees - hot enough to cook the chicken slowly but not so hot that his food will burn or even singe.

"You must start out with a great fire and moderate the fire just right," says Queen Nzinga Ama-Linton, Doobie's wife and co-owner of the downtown Baltimore restaurant, which they opened in February of last year.

At the West Indian Import market on Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, manager Hugh Williams says many of his Jamaican customers swear by Walkerswood jerk seasoning, a 10-ounce jar of paste that sells for $4.29, exported from Jamaica, as the closest thing to homemade.

"It's Old-World food, warm and embracing," says Williams.

But newcomers should be warned: Authentic jerk is not a timid flavor. It doesn't have to be eye-watering hot, but it should be potent.

Jerk Chicken

Serves 6

2 chicken breasts, bone in, with skin, cut in halves

6 chicken thighs

6 chicken drumsticks

1/3 cup lime or lemon juice

Jerk Marinade (see below)

Wash chicken in lime or lemon juice. Discard juice and transfer chicken, without drying, to a dish.

Add 1/2 cup of Jerk Marinade, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Prepare grill. When charcoal is covered with ash, spread embers evenly - or wait until gas grill has reached 350 degrees.

Add pimento wood (allspice) chips that have been soaked in wa- ter for 30 minutes. If pimento is not available, substitute hickory or use whole allspice berries that have been soaked in water.

Grill marinated chicken over hot coals, about 6 inches from the heat source. Cover and grill for about an hour, turning occasionally and basting frequently with marinade.

When cooking is completed, allow the chicken to sit for 10 minutes to reabsorb juices.

Jerk Marinade

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon ground Jamaican pimento (allspice)

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions

4 Scotch bonnet chile peppers or 6 jalapenos, stems removed and cut in halves, retaining seeds

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon salt

pinch of garlic powder

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and liquefy. Refrigerate.

Jerk Marinade will remain good indefinitely.

--Adapted from Island Barbecue by Dunstan Harris (Chronicle Books, 1995, $17.95)

Rice and Peas

This is the common accompaniment to jerk chicken and a staple of the Jamaican diet. Jamaican "gunga peas" are difficult to find here, but red kidney beans are a good substitute.

Serves 6

1 1/2 cups dried red kidney beans

1 garlic clove, crushed

4 cups water

salt to taste

2 strips of bacon, chopped

2 cups coconut milk

freshly ground pepper

1 scallion, chopped

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 whole fresh Scotch bonnet chile pepper

2 cups uncooked white rice

Combine kidney beans, garlic, water and salt to taste in a saucepan.

Cook, covered, over medium heat until tender, about 2 hours. Add the coconut milk, freshly ground pepper to taste, scallion, thyme and fresh whole pepper. (Be careful to keep the pepper intact; you want the flavor and aroma of the pepper, not the heat). Add the rice and stir.

Return to a boil. Then cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes or until the liquids have been absorbed. Serve hot as a side dish.

--From Jerk: Barbecue From Jamaica by Helen Willinsky (The Crossing Press, 1990, $12.95)

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