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Jerk it Up

Hot, spicy, tasty and tempting, jerk is the essence of the Caribbean in bite-sized form and can be found sizzling on many a street corner, just tantalising the taste buds.

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Everyone knows food brings people together, but jerk with its mouthwatering more-some-ness and searing heat epitomises the Caribbean – its fiery heat holds echoes of the tropical sun; the saltiness holds memories of the sea – while binding families together as keepers of their sacred recipes handed down from generation to generation in carefully guarded secrecy. As intrinsic to West Indian culture as soca, calypso or reggae music, the best recipes are hotly debated and were traditionally used to season, tenderise and preserve pork or chicken, but now, jerk is used to enliven everything from goat, fish, shrimp, shellfish, beef, sausage, and lamb to tofu.

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Some believe jerk comes from the Jamaican patois word for ‘poke’, describing the process of spearing and jabbing the meat as it cooks aromatically above coals or on a grill. Others contest this, arguing that jerk comes from the Spanish word ‘charqui’ meaning jerked or dried meat, originating in Peru. Whatever the truth, the process of seasoning and cooking meat this way can be traced back to the Maroons – slaves who ran away from the British during the invasion of 1655, into Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Made into a dry rub or mixed with a liquid and turned into a wet marinade, the essential ingredients are: allspice berries (known as pimento in Jamaica), Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, nutmeg, scallions, salt, garlic, cinnamon and cloves. Quantities vary depending upon whom one asks and whether or not the treasured family recipe is actually accurately shared.

Follow the sounds of reggae or dancehall, or let your nose lead the way; it is not hard to find a roadside jerk stand in the Caribbean. With slabs of juicy meat sizzling atop a lengthways-cut steel drum, the charcoal infused spices wafting in the breeze, it is a carnival for the senses that should not be resisted.


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