Many island dishes, from rice and beans to fried plantains, are shared across the Caribbean, but jerk belongs to Jamaica. It began as a way for the Maroons (runaway slaves and their descendents) to preserve wild pork and evolved into the island's most famous dish.
Some say the term refers to the way the pork (or chicken) is turned over and over – or jerked – as it cooks over a hardwood fire. Others say it comes from the fact that the fork-tender meat is jerked off the bones. Either way, jerk is both a cooking method and a seasoning, a fiery blend of Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, green onions and thyme.
Jerk blends are available in the supermarket's spice section, but a homemade marinade is far superior and simple to make.
Jerk should be grilled using the indirect method. Here are tips:
The Jamaican wood of choice, pimento (allspice), is not easy to find in the United States. Maple, pecan and cherry are good substitutes. The strong flavors of hickory or mesquite tend to fight the spicy marinade.
Soak a cup or two of wood chips in water for at least an hour, drain and scatter over the hot charcoal when ready to cook.
Use plain charcoal briquettes, not the self-starting kind. They burn longer and don't give off as many fumes.
Set aside about 1/2 cup of the marinade to use as a basting sauce.
Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school in Miami. E-mail: ckotkin@MiamiHerald.com.