There’s something glorious in the way the sights, smells, sounds, and taste of Jamaican jerk chicken combine to make the ultimate street food experience. It’s a common sight in Jamaica to see men setting up their jerk pans on busy street corners near congested bus stops. Laughing with each other, the jerk men expertly splash kerosene to fire up their dusty black coals.
A raucous serenade – horns noisily honking, taxis and buses jostling for passengers, streetlights popping and fizzing as they come on one by one – sets the evening atmosphere. The jerk man’s outdoor restaurant is simple: his grill is made from a 50-gallon steel drum cut lengthwise and outfitted with hinges to open and close. He fills the bottom half with coal and places a grate, cut to fit, on top of his grill pan. With a spout installed on the cover, the smoke wafts over the evening breeze, enticing customers even when the grill is shut.
All the jerk man needs to finish setting up shop is a small side table with his chopper, cutting board, and extras. Jamaican hardough (or hard dough) bread soaks up the juices that escape from the deliciously smoky and charred chicken meat. Add bottles of street condiments – pepper sauce and watered-down ketchup – and he’s ready for business.
The most popular jerk men have secret chicken recipes that their legions of loyal customers swear by. Preparations and seasonings are confidential; even if I knew the formula, I probably wouldn’t share with you, either.
I know that they use fresh herbs, spices and generous doses of Scotch bonnet pepper to make a wet marinade to season chicken cut into quarters. I know that the meat is usually prepped the day before, and stored in five-gallon buckets so all the flavors of the marinade can permeate the meat.
I know that the distinctive heat that plays across the tongue and tickles the senses comes from the Scotch bonnet pepper essential to all good Jamaican jerk. The complex nuances in flavor that slide in under the heat of the peppers come from that seductive berry called pimento (known more popularly as allspice). But how each jerk man combines his ingredients to make his offerings so delicious remains a jealously guarded secret.
The heavily seasoned chicken quarters are laid out on a hot grill and cooked slowly with the cover closed. This slow-cooking process allows the skin to become crispy and charred on the outside with the meat remaining juicy and succulent on the inside. The smoke streams from the spout in the cover, and the sizzle of meat as juices hit the hot coals announces to all that the food is ready. Customers wait impatiently as the jerk man, ever the showman, judges the time right to lift the cover and reveal perfectly cooked pieces of meat.
Customers are asked their preference of “leg and thigh” or “breast and wing” as the jerk man expertly removes a done piece. He places it on a cutting board, chops it up for you, and wraps it in a sheet of aluminum foil. This can be had with your choice of ketchup or pepper sauce, or even a combination of both. If you are willing to pay a little bit more, you can get two or three slices of freshly baked hard dough bread added to your meal.
This prize, this piece of sizzling hot chicken meat wrapped in “foil paper”, can be eaten on the spot or taken home to be consumed at a more leisurely pace. It’s not uncommon for people to buy half a jerk chicken or more to bring home as dinner, especially on a Friday evening.
This street food is so popular that enterprising jerk men will set up shop near nightclubs or popular events. They wait expectantly for the steady stream of tired and hungry partiers who want to reduce the effects of too much alcohol. Even at two in the morning, sales can be brisk with the jerk man trying to keep up with the demands of hungry customers as they catch a quick bite before going home.
I, on the other hand, prefer to buy my chicken on a Friday evening, when I know that my regular chicken man has set up his usual spot close to my bus stop. Tired after a day in school, I approach him expectantly, my bag on my back, my tummy rumbling, and my feet plodding wearily on the pavement. I know he sees me because he looks up, smiles and waves a friendly greeting as smoke drifts out the spout of his jerk pan.
Swapping a few jokes, I order a “leg and thigh” and wait in anticipation as he prepares chicken and hardough bread – no extra gimmicks, just the way I like it . My first few bites are wolfed down too quickly to taste anything, and it takes a minute or two for me to satisfy my hunger rush and savor my food.
My next bite tears through the crisp skin and into the meat that envelops my mouth with the silky heat of the peppers. The juicy meat falls off the bone and the spices cloak my nostrils with familiar warmth akin to a passionate embrace. This is heaven, manna from the skies as I take another bite and the full force of the peppers and spices burn away the last vestiges of hunger.
As I mop up the remaining juices with my hardough bread and lick my fingers, my bus careens to a halt, obviously in a hurry to discharge its passengers. Throwing my empty foil paper in the garbage, I thank the chicken man and join the line for the bus, sated and happily humming to myself as I prepare to go home.