A Burning Desire for Jerk Chicken

For the author, jerk chicken with a grilled, nubbly spice coating doesn't get any better than this.
For the author, jerk chicken with a grilled, nubbly spice coating doesn't get any better than this. (By Dayna Smith for The Washington Post; Tableware From Crate and Barrel)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Scott Reitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It had been three years since I had made what I thought was some pretty good jerk chicken in my back yard. Wrapped in that August's swelter, I tore into chicken so spicy my eyelids perspired. The intense combination of breathtaking heat and sweet spices had me so transfixed that I have been looking for authentic jerk ever since. This summer, the hunt brought me to East Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Boston Jerk City sits at the corner of Utica and Foster avenues. I had read that its jerk chicken was among New York's finest. Outside the place, an oil drum grill with iron legs and repurposed wheels squats atop a large scrap of cardboard, cooking 50 chicken legs at a time. Smoke seeps from the gaps where the lid doesn't fit tight and bellows from a small exhaust vent on the side.

The chicken's skin was tinged brown and flecked with coarsely ground spices and herbs. It looked dry, making me wonder whether my trip to New York had been worth it. At the least, I could take home the lesson that smoky flavor was crucial to jerk cooking. After a few bites, however, I found that the flesh was moist and intensely flavored. I ate way too much white and dark meat and jerk pork, but I don't feel the need to return.

Some references use the term "jerk" to describe the finished dish, but more important, it's a technique similar to barbecue that starts with a dry rub or marinade. Allspice, thyme and the heat from Scotch bonnet peppers are predominant components, balanced with aromatic scallions and fresh ginger. A lengthy resting period allows the flavors to deeply penetrate the meat, which then is slowly finished over a low, smoky flame.

Long ago, during a spring break in Jamaica, I had the real deal where jerk was born. (The details of that trip are understandably foggy.) The preferred fuel is the wood and green branches from the same pimento tree that produces allspice berries; cooking jerk there is not quite traditional grilling and not quite smoking. Cooks work directly over heat and turn the chicken frequently to keep the skin from burning while rendered fat and juices lick hot coals and cause belches of smoky flame. The resulting scent of cooking chicken, spices and billowing smoke is intoxicating and hard to beat.

Back at home after my Brooklyn excursion, I wondered: Was my jerk authentic? A return trip to Jamaica was not in the cards. After a few e-mail exchanges, I stumbled on Mally Dryden-Mason, a passionate 52-year-old home cook whose grandparents were Jamaican. So I drove an hour and a half to Chester, Va., where she runs a small family catering business, to get a hands-on demonstration of a jerk technique honed over three generations.

Dryden-Mason carefully picked over chicken thighs, removing unnecessary bits of fat and excess skin before dousing the pieces with lemon juice. As she combined seasoned salt, adobo and black pepper in a small bowl, layers of aroma filled a kitchen already perfumed by rice, beans and hot sauce.

Then she reached for a shortcut in a bottle: Walkerswood brand seasoning, a paste. "Everything that my mother put on her chicken is in that jar," she said, working a large measure into the chicken skin. I scanned the label looking for questionable ingredients but found none: just scallions, Scotch bonnet peppers, salt, black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, citric acid, sugar and thyme (the seasoning is sold on Amazon.com).

She put that chicken in a bag for me to take home and pulled out the jerk chicken she had been warming in the oven. Instructing me to "act like you live here," she handed me a plate. Her husband and two children were right behind me. Shortcut or not, it was pretty good jerk.

My quest for authenticity has included six or seven restaurants around Washington. Most start with a mild dry rub; spicy orders get a hit of sweet, vinegary hot sauce. The heat is a welcome addition for chiliheads, but I find that it never really integrates with the meat, not unlike dousing grilled pork with bottled sauce and calling it barbecue.

A few places, such as Sweet Mango Cafe in Petworth and the Jerk Pit in College Park, use charcoal in the grill, but they're the exception. Pimento wood, that key factor in the smoky flavor, is so hard to come by and so expensive that I'd be surprised if anyone was using it. I found that Washington restaurants tend to bake their jerk.

After all my attempts to improve my original backyard experience, I kept coming back to my first recipe. I'd found it deep within a Weber grill cookbook. I contacted the author, Jamie Purviance, and we thumbed through the ingredients. The recipe had been submitted. He remembered thinking that the half-cup of ground allspice seemed like a glaring error; other recipes call for one to three tablespoons at most. But when the dish turned out beautifully, he kept the recipe as is.

Balanced with a hefty portion of green scallions, the allspice makes perfect sense; using such an excessive amount creates a dark, thick jerk paste. Cooked over a low flame, it develops a heavy, sweet and smoky flavor.

I've made adjustments based on other versions I've enjoyed, adding thyme that seemed to be forgotten and replacing Scotch bonnets with habanero peppers when they're easier to find. I'll sometimes throw bay leaves and whole allspice berries on the coals for a little extra smoke.

It seems counterintuitive that my jerk cravings should coincide with summer's peak. The last thing I should want is spice intense enough to induce perspiration. But bathed in capsaicin's endorphin glow, even the hottest days haven't stifled my enthusiasm. For me, what defines authenticity in jerk cooking has ceased to matter. I've stumbled upon and honed a great chicken recipe, and now you have it, too.

Alexandria resident Scott Reitz blogs about food at http://www.districtplates.com.

Find a list of Washington eateries that offer jerk chicken in the Going Out Guide.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company