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Story and Photos by Rick Browne, Ph.B.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken on the Grill
We Americans love barbecue, and in some cases are obsessed to the point of thinking—sometimes out loud, and sometimes quite pointedly—that we Americans are the originators, perfectors, and by far the best practitioners of the barbecue art anywhere on earth.
Well, hopefully I won’t break too many hearts, but I have to tell you that the whole world barbecues. Yup, it’s not just folks in the hills of Kentucky, the bayous of Louisiana, the plains of Texas, or the farmlands of North Carolina (not to mention California, Indiana, South Dakota, Maine, or all the other states).
Everyone, in just about any country that cooks meat/fish/poultry/or game, at one time or another, barbecues. That is to say, they cook their meals over coals, wood, briquettes, gas flame, open fires, or (egad, really?) electric grills. And in many places they grill vegetables and fruit too, another “first” we thought Americans began. Wrong.
||That's me taping my show in Jamaica with Kai Bechinger,
Executive Chef of the Jamaica Inn cooking up jerk shrimp
The Japanese grill chicken yakitori on sticks of bamboo over coals in a small hibachi grill. Mancunians (as the people who live in Manchester, England, call themselves) grill their wonderfully tasty homemade sausages over lump charcoal. In Brazil they cook beef, pork, chicken, sausage, and lamb on sword-like skewers. The Spanish slow-cook black Iberian pork in 800-degree ovens, while a billion Chinese light up fires to cook pork char siu on long forks.
In Portugal they coat chickens with a fiery piri piri sauce and grill them over open flames or fiery piles of charcoal. Jamaicans rub jerk seasoning into the flesh and slow cook the birds over smoldering pimento wood. Singapore’s dozens of hawker food stands feature the world’s best satay over open fires.
South Africans use hardwoods in their braai stands to char up their boerewors, and Turkish cooks arrange chunks of lamb and eggplant on skewers, charring flavorful shish kepabs for family and friends. A few savvy English restaurants have begun putting barbecues on their back decks to grill up steaks and roasts, so you can get a grilled steak along with those mushy peas.
Of course we have to bring into the conversation the definition of barbecue. To me barbecue means: food cooked outdoors over a heat source, period. Now within that definition are the various aspects of barbecue that everyone fights about: smoking, low & slow barbecue, and grilling. Purists insist that true “barbecue” ONLY means cooking meat for a long time, using smoke, indirectly over a low-temperature wood or charcoal fire. But lots of folks around the world who cook their dinner over flames would disagree.
I think putting a steak right over a hot fire is barbecuing too, as is adding a packet of wood chips for smoky flavor, and cooking over an electric element, a solar-heated grill, a campfire log, or a propane gas flame.
To say barbecue is America’s only indigenous cooking style (and I’ve heard this from several sources) is, at the least, laughable. I don’t think the first cavemen, who braved tasting singed meat from a lightning-struck dinosaur, were Americans, and neither are the millions of folks around the globe who have cooked their meat and veggies over flames throughout the years.
Now, America has a “style” of barbecue that is signatory. I think we slow-smoke, over low heat for a long period of cooking time, more than anywhere else I visited. And we, of all the countries I visited, put much more emphasis on rubs, marinades, flavored woods, and barbecue sauces than just about everyone I met. But those are adaptations, or enhancements if you will, to the art of grilling and barbecue.
On that note, I’d like to point out that we probably go way overboard in our “enhancements.” In Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Turkey, Japan, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Australia, and many other places, the only condiment applied to cooking foods is salt, and perhaps a tiny drizzle of olive oil. And you know what? What comes off the grill tastes wonderful. You can actually taste the meat, fish, or poultry, not spices, herbs, and sauces. Wow, what a concept!