Words by Lisa Featherby
Guaranteed to get a chuckle around the barbecue, "jerk chicken" is up there with spotted dick as a conversation-starter. But to paraphrase Bob Marley, don't let it fool you. The name of this hot and spicy Jamaican marinated meat dish is thought to derive from the Quechua word "charqui", which refers to meat preserved by curing and drying. From "charqui" we get "jerky" and "jerk". (Some believe prodding or jerking the meat to help the spices permeate is also key to the origin of the name.)
Jamaica's indigenous Arawak people used the technique for thousands of years to preserve meat. The evolution continued when Maroons, Africans who were brought to Jamaica as slaves, contributed their own method of smoking food in fire pits in the ground.
Pork and chicken are the preferred meats for the job, and the aromatics and spices with which they're rubbed typically include allspice and Scotch bonnet chillies. (Scotch bonnets aren't readily available in Australia, so we've substituted the habanero, a chilli of similar heat and flavour, in our recipe.)
Jerk definitely isn't jerk unless it's barbecued, ideally over wood, and in a perfect world over the wood of the allspice tree. In Jamaica, oil drums serve as makeshift barbecues, but any barbecue, makeshift or otherwise, is suitable.
One thing's certain: Jamaican jerk survives the test of time through flavour above all.