TURKS & CAICOS, BRITISH WEST INDIES — It's his day off, and Mark Clayton has replaced his chef's whites and toque with shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. But he's no less interested in talking about his passion. Relaxing on the deck of the "Atabyerra" schooner in clear turquoise waters just south of the Turks & Caicos Islands, he speaks with pride about the vibrant cuisine of his Jamaican homeland.
"Its flavors are more intense than those of Turks & Caicos," he says. But as sous-chef at the Ocean Club West's Seaside Cafe on Providenciales, one of 40 Turks & Caicos islands, he's helping to change that. His boss, executive chef Christopher Walters, is also Jamaican. Together they are turning up the Jamaican-style heat on such Caribbean favorites as fresh grouper, snapper, yellowfin tuna, spiny lobster, and conch. In their open-air kitchen, chili peppers, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and cloves are as plentiful as bottles of sunscreen on nearby Grace Bay beach.
It's no wonder that Jamaican Jerk Chicken is a specialty at the Seaside Cafe. The chefs serve the grilled dish, ubiquitous at roadside shacks in their homeland, either cut into long strips on green salad or, more traditionally, plated with peas (of the Caribbean "pigeon" variety) and rice. Mr. Clayton first learned to make this dish at his mother's knee, the way he learned to cook most foods before honing his skills at a six-month culinary program taught in Jamaica by Johnson & Wales cooking school. Since then, he has made Jerk Chicken so many times that he can easily rattle off the recipe to an inquiring tourist.
The history of Jamaican Jerk Chicken goes way back. Invented by the Maroons, Jamaican slaves who escaped from the British during the invasion of 1655, "jerk" refers to the process of spicing and grilling meats, poultry, or even vegetables. It is also used as a noun to describe the dry or wet seasoning mix, used to "jerk" a particular food.
The word itself is derived from a Spanish term for dried meat. Another possible origin of the term refers to the act of jerking or poking meat with a sharp object to produce holes that can be filled with the spice mixture.
Away from his recipe book and dazed by the sun, Clayton might have inadvertently omitted the allspice commonly considered an essential ingredient from the recipe he recited. Or else he was craftily observing the custom of keeping at least one ingredient secret. (One Jamaican chef is rumored to claim more than 35 ingredients in his sauce, only a handful of which he will reveal.)
Nonetheless, Clayton's recipe, which does include other indispensable ingredients such as the fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, onions, garlic, and ginger, is quite good and worth a try. We tested it with 1/2 teaspoon allspice, and you can toss in more, if you like.
After the chicken has marinated for at least four hours, fire up the grill, flip on the reggae, and let your taste buds travel to the tropics.
This recipe for Jamaican Jerk Chicken differs from most in that it is for marinade, not a rub.
2 scallions, white part only, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 Scotch bonnet peppers, depending on degree of "heat" desired
1 onion, chopped
1/8 cup pimento (fresh or bottled)
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
1 to 1/2 teaspoons allspice (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 whole chicken, cut up; or purchase your favorite chicken pieces (with skin)
In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together. Coat chicken in the marinade and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Grill on an open flame until the juices run clear. Serves 4 to 6.
From Mark Clayton, sous-chef at the Ocean Club Resorts, Providenciales Island, Turks & Caicos.