The year 2020 brought us many things, the good, the bad and the ugly. Of the good, is the first official celebration of National Jerk Chicken Day! Yup, Jerk Chicken has its very own day on our calendar — October 25, as recorded by the USA National Day Archives. In Jamaica however, jerk chicken is king and queen on any given day. Jerk chicken and Jamaica are like the flowers and the bees. It’s so much a part of us that it nurtures and evolves over time and along regions. While much of the traditions are the same, you’ll have different taste varieties from one chef’s pan to the next.
First and foremost, it’s all in the method. Officially, jerk chicken, often referred to by Jamaicans as “pan fowl,” is prepared on an open fire (BBQ grill) fueled by a mixture of coal and wood from the allspice tree. The most authentic BBQ are of a makeshift carved out oil steel barrel and a special curated wood mixture cementing the style of the chef and his or her personal tradition. Further offerings and preferences take place in the ingredients that make up the rub or seasoning of the chicken. The basics of these ingredients, next to the quartered chicken, salt and black pepper are fresh ginger, thyme, scallion, pimento and scotch bonnet pepper, which offer a sweet, salty and spicy to very spicy flavor to the dish. This is why this spicy dish is most commonly paired with hard-dough bread to balance out the flavors and the burn.
I personally don’t enjoy my jerk chicken when it’s overly spicy, but it’s not jerk chicken without a little kick. Forgo the added pepper for a milder experience. I should also add that jerk chicken is not merely a sauce. Though, ready-made jerk seasoning, available for sale in local supermarkets, is commonly used as jerk sauce for stove top cooking. While I find this method to be better than none, make no mistake — oven roasted chicken in store bought “jerk” rub is spicy roasted chicken. It’s still good, but it’s not jerk chicken, which has to have that smoked flavor and then be chopped up into bite-sized pieces before being placed into aluminum foil. Jerk chicken tastes better when served in aluminum foil. It’s not the foil paper per se, but the foil gives us some insight into the method and process of the preparation.
Traditionally, jerk chicken is purchased for Friday night dinners, road trips, fairs and outdoor functions. The strangest part about cooking jerk chicken is that it never seems to have a start and end time. Many marinate the quartered chicken parts in the rub overnight and then cooking starts at dawn to be ready for lunch or late in the afternoon in preparation for Friday night dinners at 8pm. The chicken doesn’t leave the grill until it is ready to be consumed. It’s simply moved from the scorching fire to little or no fire and back, absorbing and cultivating the aromas of the pan.
If there were a scent to truly capture Jamaican Friday nights, it’s pan fowl, sunsets and seabreeze. Simple and free. A most appropriate addition to year 2020 indeed.
Happy 1st National Jerk Chicken Day!