Food & Culture

Anatomy of a dish: jerk chicken

Chilli, spice and smoke are the essential flavours of this classic Jamaican dish.

By Georgie Meredith
Up there with Chinese char siu and South American asado, Jamaican jerk is one of the greatest barbecue traditions in the world. Meat, usually chicken, is liberally rubbed with a hot spice mixture made from Scotch bonnet chillies and allspice (sometimes other spices) and slow-cooked over glowing coals.
The name "jerk" is said to have originated from the native Quechua word "charqui", meaning to preserve meat by curing and drying – a technique used by Jamaica's indigenous Arawak people, and later developed by African slaves brought to Jamaica.

1. Meat

Chicken is typically used; however, pork, beef, goat and fish, or even vegetables and fruit such as eggplant or jackfruit, are common alternatives. Once the meat is coated with the spice mix, it's grilled on the barbecue, traditionally over burning wood, for a smoky flavour.

2. Spice mix

Jerk seasoning is made from two core ingredients: pimento or allspice, and Scotch bonnet chillies for a kick of heat. Onion, fresh thyme, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon can be thrown into the mix and used as a dry rub for a crisp exterior. Or a marinade of the jerk seasoning plus soy sauce, lime juice and vinegar produces a juicy, tangy meat.

3. Accompaniments

Side dishes are key to offsetting the heat of the jerk spice mix. There's usually Jamaican bread known as hard dough, and festival, a sweet fried dumpling. Rice and beans are a popular choice, too, while fried plantain, pineapple or mango salsa, and lime add fresh and fragrant flavours to the plate.

Where do find it

For the real deal, head to Queen Vee's in Melbourne, which serves jerk chicken, jackfruit or fish alongside pickled cucumber and green tomatoes as well as grilled pineapple. Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo serves jerk-chicken skin as the garnish to its Caesar salad for a modern twist.