Behind the spicy, smoky and savoury taste of jerk chicken is a history as rich as its flavour, filled with traditions and stories of survival.
Ryerson professor of Caribbean studies Robert Stewart says the origins of jerk can be traced back to the aboriginal communities of the Caribbean.
“It goes all the way back to the Arawaks of the greater antilles islands,” he says.
Though jerk chicken is common today, he says the native inhabitants of the Caribbean cooked a variety of jerk dishes using small, wild animals.
During the colonial era, many African slaves in Jamaica would flee to the mountains to escape bondage. It was in those mountains that they met the Arawak Indians, also known as Tainos, whose predecessors would have been among the few that survived the violent conquest of Christopher Columbus.
The runaway slaves, who would become known as maroons, learned the “jerk” cooking method from their Aboriginal counterparts, who practiced it for thousands of years. The method involved seasoning meat with a variety of spices, including pimento and scotch bonnet peppers.
Prior to seasoning, holes would be poked into the meat in a process called “jerking”, which allowed for more penetration of the spices. The meat was also slow-cooked on pimento wood with heated rocks underneath, which gave Jerk meat its signature smoky flavour.
Both the seasoning and slow-cooking of the meat, which ranged from wild animals to chicken, contributed to the preservation of the food. This was especially important to the maroons, as food was scarce in the region and there was always a need to prolong its supply.
But while jerk was commonly used in the aboriginal and maroon communities for years, it would not become mainstream until the 90s.
According to professor Robert Stewart, the rise of Rastafarianism in Jamaica helped catapult jerk into mainstream society.
Chicken may be most popular, but other meats, fish, and even vegetables are prepared using the jerk cooking style today.
While pimento wood and heated stones have been supplanted by modern stoves and ovens to prepare this meal, certain elements of traditional Jerk cooking such as the spices are still used.
Stewart says acknowledging the history of Jerk is important as it signifies one of the Caribbean community’s contributions to modern society.
“People from all over make their mark on culture and civilization,” he says.
“It’s important to know that we have contributed to popular culture.”