Islands are interesting places for food. Depending on their location, history, cultural, and climate they can run the gamut from truly fascinating melting pots of flavors and food to…well…Nova Scotia. There’s a reason you’ve never heard someone say, “Let’s go out for Nova Scotian tonight.” But there is a very definite reason why we have all eaten some form of Jamaican food.
“Jerked” food or “jerk sauce” is the ubiquitous and most recognizable Jamaican food. Jerk is as unfixed a term as “curry.” It is applied as a sauce or as a dry-rubbed spice. Ingredients and applications vary depending on the region but jerked chicken is the gold standard. Perusing recipes it seems as though you can jerk anything nowadays: fish, goat, chicken nuggets, a human hand, whatever.
Worcester currently has three Jamaican restaurants and I went to the unassuming Homestyle Kitchen at 82 Harrison Street in Worcester to get some firsthand experience with jerked chicken. Side note: bring cash. I walked in, looked at the menu board and saw two things that made me know I was in the right place: oxtail and chicken foot soup. I knew immediately that the smiling women in the kitchen were not messing around.
I ordered the jerked chicken and a Jamaica patty (imagine a Hot Pocket you’d actually want to eat) and waited.
The term “jerk” itself is a bizarre melting pot and bespeaks the history of Jamaica. In researching its history you run into a laundry list of ethnicities that played a role in this work: a Quechua word that was used by slaves who were freed by Spanish settlers, and later developed the jerk system of meat preservation to hide from British soldiers. Got it?
When my food arrived, I opened the Styrofoam container and was greeted by a blast of warm steam that made my eyes water. The chicken is black with jerk sauce and falling off the bone. The jerk sauce was black and the heat from the spices came on slowly like a freight train. Some heat is a slap in the face but this was a slow, flavorful swelling like music rising to a crescendo filling my mouth and my entire face.
I mean this sincerely: it tasted so good I was at once overjoyed at finding this place but kicking myself for taking so long. How many missed opportunities I wondered? How many mediocre meals had I stomached when I could have had this amazing chicken?
When considering what I had just eaten I found myself thinking about how it all started. Was it free slaves hiding from the British? Did this all have to do with food preservation? What were the peppers in that jerk sauce? Is there another word in cooking that can be used as a noun (jerk sauce), verb (to jerk a chicken), and adjective (jerked chicken)? What was the meat in that Jamaica patty?
Whatever the answer to those questions may be, here’s what I am certain of. Jerked sauce is wonderfully indefinite, infinitely adaptable, and without a doubt Jamaican. And that was the best piece of chicken I have eaten in a long time.