The term “jerk” comes from the Spanish word charqui, which means spiced and dried meat—the original food-preservation technique—but we like to think that the term was chosen with character evaluation in mind. If you cannot appreciate the spicy, napalm-like charm of jerk, for example, there’s a decent chance that part or all of you might be one.
All kidding aside, at the most basic level, jerk is defined as a spice rub or marinade with two required ingredients: allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. From there recipes vary widely, often including brown sugar, scallions, nutmeg, cinnamon, and thyme. The meat is usually slow-cooked over pimento wood or roasted; and, as aficionados will tell you, if it doesn’t set fire to your epiglottis, it’s not jerk, plain and simple.
Jerk huts are scattered liberally across the island of Jamaica. Looking like lemonade stands on fire, these humble establishments are unmistakable thanks to oil-drum grills that release plumes of smoke around the clock. Needless to say, Jamaica is the place to go if you’ve got an insatiable craving for jerk. Fortunately, if you simply cannot get away, a few sublimely talented chefs are riffing on the island groove here in the States.
At Nine-Ten in La Jolla, Calif., the James Beard Foundation Award nominee and Jamaican-born chef Jason Knibb bathes pork belly overnight in a jerk marinade that includes yellow onions and cider vinegar. Then over each cube of swiney goodness he rests glazed vegetables (carrots, black-eyed peas, and plantains), tops it all with a thin layer of Scotch bonnet jelly, and serves it on a garnet-yam puree. The flavors, fat, and heat of that dish will alter a man—it’s one of the most delicious bites on the planet.
Two hours north, in Los Angeles, John Shook and Vinny Dotolo—two chefs famous for serving odd, rarely eaten parts of beasts—are applying jerk to seafood. At Animal, the cooking duo adds jerk spices to yellowtail collar and cuts the intensity with watermelon radish, citrus, and palm sugar. At their offshoot Son of a Gun, Shook and Dotolo serve up a jerked Scottish salmon with kiwi, palm-sugar vinaigrette, and habanero.
The largest Caribbean populations in the United States are found in Florida and New York, each of which plays host to about 18,000 people for the annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festivals. At Johnny V’s in Fort Lauderdale, local black grouper is seared with jerk seasoning and paired with conch chowder. Accented by sautéed callaloo, yucca frita, and red chile–banana salsa, the dish is more tropical than some of the tropics. Down the road in Miami, the Forge—a century-old supper club with ties to the mob—is now home to a Michelin-starred chef. It’s there that Christopher Lee takes a jerk approach to bacon, topping a few thick slabs with a tropical salsa (mango plus acid).
In New York, Park Slope’s Sugarcane serves upscale Caribbean jerk chicken wings accompanied by three sauces—passion fruit, tamarind, and mango barbecue—and if that isn’t enough to panic the Pacemaker, a mango-mayo dipping sauce rides alongside. The restaurant is significantly more refined than Jamaica’s smoking lemonade stands, where true jerk culture lives. But then, when eating fire, it’s nice to marinate oneself in central air-conditioning.