Jamaica’s True Definition of the Word Jerk

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Jerk Chicken
I thought I knew what the word jerk meant before I went to Jamaica, but I was wrong.  I learned the true meaning of jerk at Scotchies, an unassuming barbecue restaurant in Montego Bay.  Sure, I’ve known my share of the human kind, the boorish line-cutting, loud-talking, argue with the umpire kind or as epitomized by a number of men chosen to be contestants The Bachelor.  The kind I’m talking about now is the culinary type, the spicy, slightly sweet and smoky kind of the meat or seafood variety.

Jerk is a national dish and a national obsession in Jamaica. Dating back to the time of slavery, the cooking technique was developed as a method for runaway slaves to cook food without being caught. Traditionally, they would dig a pit, light a fire of sweet wood, then lay the meat on top, covered by a piece of tin, then bury it.  This method allowed little smoke to escape, but made the meat falling-off-the-bone tender.  The technique is similar to the imu used by Hawaiians to cook kahlua pork.

Jerk Chicken Cooking

The real secret to jerk isn’t the cooking technique as much as it is in the sauce.  When I’ve had jerk chicken in the US, it was aggressively seasoned with hot pepper sauce that was so hot my tasted buds revolted after a few bites. Not so with real Jamaican Jerk.  The sauce used to marinate the meat is made from a mixture of Scotchbonnet peppers, allspice, and brown sugar.  This is added to some other spices to make a flavorful concoction that is tasty, but doesn’t make you want to curl up in a fetal position and cry for your mommy. But, maybe that’s just my reaction to hot food.

Since some like it hotter, the meat is served with two extra sauces that can be added to turn up the heat.


We had jerk twice while in Jamaica, once at Scotchies in Montego Bay and later at Pushcart in Negril.  Both times, the meat was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and made a jerk fan out of me.

Scotchies is a neighborhood restaurant with several locations.  We were allowed to go back to the grill area, where a cook named Shorty makes all the magic happen.  There is a huge fire pit, that is covered in sweet wood, then whole pigs are flattened and roasted, along with chickens on a spit, breadfruit, and fish. The meat is placed directly in the wood, and covered eith corrugated tin, like you might see on the roof of a house.  it cooks for about an hour and a half before being ready to serve.

Jerk Pork Oven

We heard that there are  restaurants that serve jerk lobster and jerk goat, but we didn’t make it there. That was just fine with me. I was more than happy with the chicken and pork.  Jerk is served all over the island, at small stands and fine dining establishments alike.  If you want a taste of real Jamaican Jerk cooked the traditional way, check out Scotchies on Falmouth Road in Montego Bay. Scotchies also has locations in Ocho Rios, and Kingston.

All photos were taken by Glennia Campbell using a Nikon D90 DSLR.  Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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