Jerk was invented by Arawak Indians, who inhabited the primeval forests of the Jamaican uplands. As the legend goes—and legends are about all there is to go on—they’d rub freshly butchered wild boars with a tenderizing mixture that contained the dried berry of the pimento tree, which is native to the island and which came to be called allspice because it tasted like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove combined. The meat was then roasted in a pit with wood from the same tree, imparting a sweet smokiness. The term “jerk” supposedly came from the Peruvian “chaqui”—not the most obvious echo—which referred to llama meat dried in the sun.
Other origin tales abound: Some say jerking originated with African slaves who escaped their plantations to settle in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Jerk pork is still a specialty of Boston Bay on the southeast coast of the island, but when the treatment arrived in New York City in the 1960s, chicken became the flesh of choice. Another innovation around the same time proved pivotal: the creation of the oil-drum barbecue. This involved splitting a 60-gallon steel barrel lengthwise, hinging the two halves, filling the bottom with charcoal, and alternately opening and closing the top while smoking the poultry to achieve the right balance of tender meat and crisp skin.
The world’s jerk capital is no longer Jamaica, but Flatbush. The Brooklyn neighborhood has gone from mainly Jewish and Italian to Jamaican, Haitian, Guyanese, and Trinidadian in the last half century. About 50 restaurants offer the dish, each with its own idiosyncratic approach. A group of friends and I recently staged an extended jerk run, collecting 16 examples—some according to recommendations from neighborhood residents, others by trusting our noses and checking out places we stumbled on. We ordered the smallest serving at each place, usually a quarter chicken costing around $5. These samples differed in fundamental ways. The first was the cooking method: Some were broiled in the oven, others braised on the stove-top, while a few were cooked over charcoal in oil drums in the traditional manner—a technique used more often in warm weather, during which every thoroughfare in Flatbush seems dotted with sidewalk jerkers.
The second distinction between the samples lay in the spice rub or paste by which flavor is conferred on the bird. In addition to allspice, the recipes—many of them closely guarded secrets in the highly competitive world of jerk—can include thyme, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, scallions, soy sauce, lime juice, rum, bay leaves, ginger, and black pepper. The third factor is the jerk sauce. After your order is hacked into small pieces with a cleaver or machete and deposited in a carryout container, most places ceremoniously offer one or more bottles of sauce for you to apply. Of the three common types, one is thin, vinegary, and incendiary; another thick, somewhat less spicy, and tasting of Worcestershire; while a third is often just doctored American barbecue sauce.
The best we tasted was at Exquisite Express (2847 Church Ave.), where flames shooting from the gas grill can be seen through the schmalz-smeared windows. The poultry’s slightly charred skin is still intact, the flesh moist and smoky. Two excellent sauces are tendered—one thin and tart, the other thicker and tasting of fresh herbs. Both are hot as Hades. Get the sweet golf-ball-size fritter called “festival” to go alongside.
The bird was a bit drier at stalwart Peppa’s (730 Flatbush Ave.), which became the city’s premier jerk destination two decades ago when it was known as Danny & Pepper. Despite Danny’s departure, the chicken is still some of the best in town. Roasted over charcoal, the bird’s skin is lip-smackingly spicy and carbonized. The single sauce is thick and flecked with Scotch bonnet peppers. Festivals here are larger, more like elongated doughnuts.
The third-best we tasted was at Errol’s Caribbean Bakery (661 Flatbush Ave.), a rollicking spot run by Rastas with extravagantly inflated knit hats. Don’t be distracted just yet by the killer bread pudding or the red velvet cake; go right for the jerk chicken. The plump pieces taste pungently of allspice and thyme; the homemade sauce is wonderfully lumpy and grainy.
Other places merit honorable mentions. C&J II (875 Flatbush Ave.) is a bakery that serves the bird as they do in Jamaica, with hardo bread (a cakey white loaf). Fisherman’s Cove (2025 Church Ave.) turns out a tasty product grilled over flame, though the sauce proves too tomatoey. Finally, a new café, K&E (931 Flatbush Ave.), does jerk pork as well. Covered with a thick spice rub, the gnarled chunks are delectably chewy. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine you’re far away in the Blue Mountains, feasting on boar.
Also read: 6 Best Jerk Chickens in Flatbush, Brooklyn