When escaped African slaves battled their British oppressors in 18th-century Jamaica, they fueled their fight for freedom with wild boar, which they packed in rainforest spices and slow-roasted over green pimento wood. Along the way, they created one of the world's great barbecue traditions: Jamaican jerk, a combination of West African flavors, pit-roasting techniques from Jamaica's Taino Indians, and the Quechua Indians' jerky-like charqui, meaning "dried meat."
Jamaicans still pit-roast pigs in a few areas, but since Rastas don't eat swine, chicken has long since taken over as the primary jerk meat. "It also cooks faster," says Jamaican chef Sean John, a Kingston native and the owner of Spur Tree Lounge, a Jamaican restaurant in downtown Manhattan. All over Jamaica, family farmers raise extra birds for the island's jerk stands, and virtually every street corner has its own local grillmaster armed with an old oil drum cut in half. To capture that intense fusion of smoky flavor, tropical sweet-and-hot spice, and tender meat, John says you have to marinate the birds overnight in a classic Jamaican blend including cinnamon, onions, garlic, nutmeg, and ultrahot Scotch bonnet peppers.
"My own secret ingredient is from my grandmother," he says. "She always added two tablespoons of molasses – gives it a nice color and a little sweetness." Then there's jerk's indispensable allspice, harvested from the same pimento trees favored by those 18th-century slaves. It infuses the marinade with a delicious exoticism, and if you soak the allspice berries in water, wrap them in foil, and set them on embers to smolder while the birds cook slow, they'll fill your backyard with the heady aroma of the Caribbean.
For the chicken:
• 1 3.5 to 4 lb organic chicken
• Juice of two limes
• 1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
For the jerk rub:
• 2 tbsp blackstrap molasses
• 1 red onion, chopped
• 1 scallion, chopped
• 2 Scotch bonnet peppers, chopped (okay to substitute fresh habanero, serrano, or jalapeño)
• 3 cloves garlic
• 1 tbsp fresh thyme
• 2 dried bay leaves
• 1/2 tsp ground allspice
• 1/2 tsp ground or grated nutmeg
• 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
• 1 tsp ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp salt
Cut a whole chicken in half. Remove the chicken's backbone and cut into two bone-in halves, each with a breast, wing, leg, and thigh.
Rinse in lime juice and vinegar. In Jamaica, this acidic mix is believed to kill bacteria and wash away funky smells, but it also creates a kind of instant cure on the meat's surface, helping to crisp it up and seal in flavors.
Cover in jerk rub. Combine all rub ingredients in a blender. Thin with a little water to taste. Lift skin on each piece of chicken and stuff the sauce underneath. "Really get it in there," says John. Rub the rest over the outside, cover, and marinate overnight.
Add pimento wood to your fire. Every kind of wood imparts a different flavor with its smoke. On a charcoal grill, soak pimento chips in water for at least 30 minutes, then sprinkle the soaked wood chips over your hot embers, and continue to sprinkle them as the meat cooks. On a gas grill, wrap the chips in foil, poke small holes in the pouch with a fork, and set it over the burner.
Grill over indirect heat. Prepare your grill for indirect cooking – a burner or fire to one side – at medium heat (350°–400°). Place the chicken skin side down, away from the flame. Cook 40–45 minutes, turning every few minutes and basting with leftover rub. "Some people pour a little Red Stripe on there, too," says John. The chicken's done when the breast or leg reaches 165°.
Chop and serve. Jerk chicken is on-the-go finger food in Jamaica, typically eaten after a night at the Kingston clubs. So the classic way to serve it is to quarter the chicken, then hack each chunk into smaller pieces.
Essential Sides: Rice and Peas
Jamaican roadside stands offer a hunk of white bread and a bottle of Red Stripe to help cut the heat. But Jamaican families round out the meal with rice and peas.
• 6 slices bacon, diced
• 1 scallion, diced
• 1 clove garlic, crushed
• 1 sprig thyme
• 1 15-oz can kidney beans, drained (to sub for Jamaican gungo peas, which can be hard to find)
• 3 cups water
• Salt and pepper
• 2 cups long-grain white rice
Fry bacon in large Dutch oven set over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add scallion and garlic, and sauté 1 minute. Add thyme, beans, and water. Reduce heat to low and cook 7–8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add rice, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.