A (Short) History of Jamaican Jerk

January 10, 2018

A (Short) History of Jamaican Jerk

You can’t think of Caribbean cuisine without thinking of jerk. No, no not mean people, but the seasoning rub used to make a variety of dishes (we here at All You Can Spice are partial to jerk chicken).  It’s had a global influence, and that’s appropriate since it had global origins. Jerk’s history has as many different parts as the seasoning itself. It was a product of the Columbian exchange, and the cross-cultural encounters of Europeans and Africans that ensued transformed indigenous cooking practices into what we know today as jerk.


The origins of jerk lie with the indigenous population of the Caribbean, the Taino. They used a technique that was similar to modern jerking in order to preserve meat in the wild. The mountainous regions where they lived were remote and harsh, and the mixture of salt, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and thyme provided a flavorful way of preventing boar meat from spoiling. Yes, boar. It’s perhaps not the dish you would order if you went to a restaurant, and in fact the preparation would not be what you’re used to. Modern jerk really developed out of the Maroons.


Photo credit: Fernan Luna Jr. 

The Spanish brought African slaves to farm the colonies of the Caribbean, but the Maroons were the ones who escaped. During periods of upheaval – like when the British attacked Jamaica in 1665 – slaves were able to flee to the mountains. Once there, they would integrate into the existing Taino community, and when they did they brought along their cooking traditions from West Africa. The Maroons took the spice rub of the Taino, and they added the crucial element of pit cooking. Wrapped in leaves, they’d bury a pig and cover it with hot stones, or slowly roast it over green wood for some twelve hours. Eventually this process would transform into barbeque.


The dish began to spread throughout the island, and Boston Bay became the official capital of jerk dishes. Walk through the town or beaches and you’d see it sold out of tin sheds, and that’s how it remained for many years. The only changes came from the types of meat. As the recipe came down from the mountains it relied less on boar and pig and more on chicken. Jerk remained fairly isolated to Jamaica and the Caribbean until relatively recently. It wasn’t until roughly forty years ago that a company decided to bottle and sell the spice mix. Walkerswood brought the mixture to an international audience. And once again jerk is transforming as the globe takes notice. Perhaps the two most important changes in recent years are the increasing availability of beef, traditionally an unusual choice for jerk, and the influence of Asian spices and techniques.


But why is it called “jerk?” It actually comes from the Spanish word “charqui.” Looking at it spelled you may not see a relationship between it and “jerk,” but say it out loud. See? Sounds similar, and in fact the Spanish word means roughly what the English word “jerky” means (think beef jerky). And by the 18th century “jerk” is how the dish of the Maroons came to be known.


Written by: E. M. Caris

Edited by: Lee Gresham

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