Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a hot spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice.
The term jerk is said to come from the word charqui, a Spanish term of Quechua origin for jerked or dried meat, which eventually became the word jerky in English.
Jerk is also derived from the action of jerking, which referred to poking meat with holes so that flavor could more easily be absorbed.
The term jerk spice refers to a spice rub. The word jerk refers to the spice rub, wet marinade, and to the particular cooking technique. Jerk cooking has developed a following in United States, Canadian and Western European cosmopolitan urban centers with Caribbean/West Indian communities.
Jamaican jerk sauce developed as an adaptation by escaped enslaved Coromantee Africans in Jamaica. When the British invaded Jamaica in 1655 the Spanish colonists fled, leaving behind a large number of African slaves. Rather than be re-enslaved by the British, they escaped into Jamaica's mountainous regions where they mixed in with the local Taínos.
Jamaican jerk sauce primarily developed from formerly enslaved Africans, seasoning and slow cooking wild hogs over allspice wood, which was to native to Jamaica at the time and is the most important ingredient in the taste; over the centuries it has been modified as various cultures added their influence.
From the start, the Coromantee slaves found themselves in new surroundings on the island of Jamaica and were forced to use what was available to them. As a result, they adapted to their surroundings and used herbs and spices available to them on the island such as Scotch bonnet pepper, which is largely responsible for the heat found in Caribbean jerks.
Jerk cooking and seasoning has followed the Caribbean diaspora all over the world, and forms of jerk can now be found at restaurants almost anywhere a significant population of Caribbean descent exists, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, or the United States. French Caribbean's "Poulet boucané" is quite similar to traditional Jamaican jerk chicken.
The cooking technique of jerking, as well as the results it produces, has evolved over time from using pit fires to old oil barrel halves as the container of choice. Around the 1960s, Caribbean entrepreneurs seeking to recreate the smoked pit flavor in an easier, more portable method came up with a solution to cut oil barrels lengthwise and attach hinges, drilling several ventilation holes for the smoke. These barrels are fired with charcoal, which enhances the spicy, smoky taste. Alternatively, when these cooking methods are unavailable, other methods of meat smoking, including wood burning ovens, can be used to jerk meat. However, oil barrels are arguably one of the most popular cooking methods for making jerk in Jamaica. Most jerk in Jamaica is no longer cooked in the traditional method and is grilled over hardwood charcoal in a steel drum jerk pan.
Street-side jerk stands or jerk centers are frequently found in Jamaica and the nearby Cayman Islands, as well as throughout the Caribbean diaspora and beyond. Jerked meat, usually chicken or pork, can be purchased along with hard dough bread, deep fried cassava bammy Jamaican fried dumplings (known as Johnny or journey cakes), and festival, a variation of sweet flavored fried dumplings made with sugar and served as a side.
Jerk seasoning principally relies upon two items: allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Other ingredients may include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, and salt.
Jerk seasoning is traditionally applied to pork and chicken. Modern recipes also apply jerk spice mixes to fish, shrimp, shellfish, beef, sausage, lamb, vegetables, and tofu.