It seems every place in the world has its own specialties when it comes to barbecuing writes Journalist Alan Markoff.
Jamaica is known for jerk, a centuries-old method of slow cooking meats using tropical woods and seasonings. Although the jerk phenomenon has spread to many other places in the world, you still can’t get authentic jerk anywhere but Jamaica.
Although Portland, and Boston Bay in particular, is thought to be the birthplace of jerk, you can buy good jerk-style meats throughout Jamaica and Kingston is no different. However in the business district of New Kingston a small jerk restaurant called the Sweetwood Jerk Joint is putting a new flair on traditional Jamaican-style jerking.
Opened in September 2008, Sweetwood is within walking distance of three of the major business hotels in the area – the Pegasus, the Hilton and the Courtleigh One of the restaurant’s owners, Adrian King, says the restaurant’s location has been a key to its success so far.
“It’s a good location in a densely populated business area. It’s next to the public park, which is one of the nicest public parks in Kingston,” he said referring to Emancipation Park.
The history of jerk is somewhat debated. Historians generally agree that the name ‘jerk’ comes from the Spanish work charqui, which is actually a lot like what is called jerky in North America. This method of preserving meat came to Jamaica from Peru when the Arawak Indians settled in the country.
When shipwrecked Africa slaves – known as Maroons – settled in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, they spiced the meat with salt, hot peppers and various seasonings and used methods similar to the Arawaks to cook the meat.
Jerk, as it came to be called, was cooked in a coal pit in the ground in those days, with the meat placed in between layers of allspice tree leaves.
Unlike traditional Jamaican jerk, which was cooked over coals of pimento wood – which comes from the allspice tree – Sweetwood Jerk Joint uses lump wood coal as its base heat. Above the hot coals, which are pre-heated in a coal pit outside the restaurant, is placed a lattice of sweetwood, hence the name of the restaurant. Sweetwood refers to a specific tree that grows in Jamaica, but it also refers to several related trees.
“There are many variations of sweetwood, each with its own essence,” King says, adding that some of the related trees known as sweetwood create a bitter smoke. The people who harvest the wood for the restaurant are careful to only bring the kinds of sweetwood known to be good for cooking.
Only green trees or branches of a certain width are used.
“It needs to be about the thickness of your forearm,” he says, noting that if the pieces are too small they burn up quickly and if they are too large, the can make the meat bitter.
After the hot coals are placed under the wood lattice, the meat is laid directly on the wood. Sheets of corrugated metal are then placed directly on meat to hold in heat and wood smoke without smothering the fire.
“The Maroons used pimento leaves, but we use the metal,” he says.
Since most people cooking jerk are doing it in drums these days, King said he had to bring people in from parts of Jamaica where the neo-traditional method is still used.
Although King says the restaurant uses “just shy of 10” spices to create the marinade in which the meat sits over night, jerk generally has six common ingredients: scotch bonnet peppers, salt, scallions, allspice and thyme.
A key ingredient though is scotch bonnet peppers, a cousin of the habanero pepper.
Sweetwood makes its own seasoning, using local scotch bonnet peppers. In fact, almost everything the restaurant uses to prepare its meals comes from local sources, and that doesn’t mean the grocery store. Sweetwood buys whole pigs which it debones itself, and it also buys whole chickens and even whole lambs.
After marinating over night, the meat is cooked for about three hours, with the first batch ready just after 11am.
The restaurant attracts a large cross-section of patrons. A typical lunchtime will find tourists from the hotels mixed in with businessmen in shirts and ties and labour-class Jamaicans. Delivery people also take large orders of meat to offices and other workplaces.
In addition to the mainstays of jerk chicken and jerk port, Sweetwood also sells jerk lamb, jerk sausage and jerk conch.
King says jerk lamb isn’t widely sold by other restaurants and that it’s taken a while to catch on.
“We had to give away a lot of tasters in the beginning,” he says. “We had to develop the market.”
All of the jerk, with the exception of conch, is sold by the quarter pound, half pound or pound. Jerk pork and jerk sausage are also sold by the three-quarters pound.
The outdoor dining area offers round wooden tables under umbrellas with chairs made from oak barrels. In additional to jerk, the restaurant sells sides like roasted corn, roasted breadfruit, roasted yam and sweet potato. It also sells soup, which is quite often mannish water, King says.
As many Jamaicans will tell you, a key to good jerk is also the sauce.
Sweetwood provides four sauce accompaniments for its jerk: ketchup; a sweetish tamarind sauce; and two crushed scotch bonnet sauces, one hotter than the other. These latter sauces are the most popular, but they are not for those unaccustomed to scotch bonnet peppers or extremely hot sauces.
Sweetwood is open seven days a week, but King says Friday the busiest day.
“No one cooks on Friday,” he says.
On Tuesdays, Sweetwood cooks wild boar, pig head and pig knuckles, dishes popular with the local clientele.
The acceptance of the restaurant by local Jamaicans, the real connoisseurs of jerk, is what tells King the restaurant. Proof of that acceptance came when the restaurant was invited to attend the Portland Jerk Festival in 2009.
“There were 25 stalls,” said King.
“Twenty-three were for locals from Portland and two were from outside, one of which was us. We were honoured to be invited. I think it spoke to our authenticity.”