Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica in which meats, traditionally pork and goat but including chicken, fish, beef, sausage and tofu, are dry-rubbed with a very hot spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice. Jerk seasoning principally relies upon two items: allspice (Jamaican pimento) and Scotch bonnet peppers (among the hottest peppers on the Scoville scale). Other ingredients include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic.
The Quechua word charqui (dried meat) gave the name to both jerk and jerky. Jamaican "jerk" ties well into its first people; American Indian (Tainos) roots, since of all the modern barbecueing processes, in its purest form it corresponds the closest to historical descriptions of the Tainos' method. The Tainos would construct a grid of green sticks some distance above a smoldering fire of green pimento wood (that is, the wood of the allspice tree) in a shallow pit, place meat on the grid and cover it with pimento leaves to impart further flavour while trapping the smoke for maximum effect.
Originally the jerk meat was cut into strips and dried in the sun for use at a later date. A small fire was lit under the meat so that the smoke would prevent flies from laying their eggs on the raw meat. Native Americans also use this method and also call it jerk meat, as was shown in an episode of Ray Mears the survivalist's programme on the BBC. (See also jerky.)
Jerking has evolved over time from pit fires to old oil barrel halves as the container of choice. In about the 1960s, Jamaican entrepreneurs sought to recreate the smoked pit flavour, and relatively quickly came up with a solution. The solution was to cut oil barrels lengthwise and attach hinges, drilling several ventilation holes for the smoke. These barrels are often heated by layers of charcoal, which some say lends itself to making the burnt smokey taste.
Street-side "jerk stands" are most frequently found in Jamaica and the nearby Cayman Islands. Jerked meat, usually chicken or pork, can be purchased along with hard dough bread or Jamaican fried dumpling (called festival) served as a side. The starch in the bread lend themselves to counteracting the powerful pepper of the jerk. Recipes for Jamaican jerk spice vary, and it is often debated around jerk stands about which chef's secret recipe of spices and herbs makes the best jerk seasoning.
It has been claimed that the best place to get jerk chicken is in Port Antonio, Jamaica, where it was first made. The chicken is seasoned with the jerk seasoning, then barbecued on pimento wood.
Jerk cooking has followed the Jamaican diaspora all over the world, and authentic jerk can now be found at restaurants anywhere a significant population of Jamaicans exists, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, or the United States.