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One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to connect with a destination is to sample its signature cuisine. In the case of Jamaica, that would have to be its jerk cooking. Increasingly, travelers are able to find jerk cooking at their all-inclusive resorts, since hoteliers are learning that local cuisine is a huge part of the travel experience. As tasty as that cooking might be, I recommend venturing outside the resort gates to a local jerk shack, which more often than not is an open-air eatery where fragrant smoke billows from wood fires, and where local bragging rights for the best jerk are highly prized.
First, what is jerk cooking? The cooking technique started in colonial days, when runaway slaves called Maroons fled to the mountains to live free. In constant threat of being captured, and with food in short supply, they developed a method of smoking meat to preserve it and make it easy to transport. Jerk cooking begins with a fire of pimento wood. The main protein is usually chicken, pork or fish, which is marinated with a mix of allspice, pimento seeds, scallions, garlic, thyme and ultra-hot scotch bonnet peppers, then slow-cooked over the flames. The heat quotient is kicked up a notch with homemade pepper sauces.
Sides served with a jerk meal are just as important. Most commonly, these are roasted yam, roasted breadfruit and “festival,” a slightly sweet fried bread that resembles a skinny cruller. I suppose a soft drink would do just fine, but an ice cold Red Stripe beer brewed on the island really completes the meal.
Travelers arriving in Montego Bay can get their first taste of jerk cooking en route to their resort, which will typically be along the northern coast. In my experience, airport van drivers are more than willing to stop at an established jerk shack for a combination bathroom break and quick meal. (I also imagine they get a small commission from the restaurant.) A popular stop is Ultimate Jerk Centre in Discovery Bay.
My first encounter with jerk cooking was more than a decade ago at Scotchies in Montego Bay. I loved everything about the experience, from the clouds of smoke heavy enough to make my eyes well with tears, to the views of the cooks at work and the chance to dine among local Jamaicans. Scotchies has since become so famous that it has expanded and now has locations in Ocho Rios and Kingston. The menu has also expanded to include an excellent jerk chicken sausage.
If you have clients who have become enamored of jerk cooking, you may want to suggest they venture farther afield to Port Antonio’s Boston Beach, on the northeastern coast of the island. This more secluded region is commonly referred to as the birthplace of jerk, as it was a refuge for Maroon communities. Port Antonio is a great recommendation for return visitors to the island, or for seasoned travelers who want to experience unfiltered Jamaica.
In addition to those already mentioned, some of the best jerk restaurants on the island include Ocho Rios Jerk Centre, Ocho Rios; Boston Jerk, Boston Bay Jerk Centre; Supreme Jerk Centre, Green Island; Border Jerk Centre, Ramble; Lyming at Walkerswood, Ocho Rios; G&B Jerk Centre, Victoria Road; Unique Jerk Center, Hope Bay; and Pon Di Corner Jerk Center, Black Hill District.
Not every traveler is confident venturing out on their own in Jamaica. Those who are hesitant should hire a driver associated with their resort who can take them out on the road for an authentic jerk experience. In many cases, an open-air jerk restaurant will be within easy driving distance (or in some cases, walking distance) of a client’s resort. There’s a good chance that a meal at a local jerk center will be the most memorable dining experience of a client’s Jamaica vacation.