Jerk is both a spice mix and a cooking method - and it's one you can easily learn to bring you a taste of Jamaica. 

What is it?

Jerk refers to both a spice mix and a cooking method: the marinade redolent with allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and thyme and the chicken ‘jerked’ frequently over a hot flame.


Like many Caribbean dishes, Jamaican jerk traces its roots back to West Africa, where meats were spiced with a variety of tasty, tongue-numbing spices prior to cooking. There are two prevailing theories on the origin of the term jerk – one says it comes from the Spanish word charqui, meaning dried meat. Most Jamaicans, however, insist the term jerk comes from the cooking method, which calls for regular turning (or jerking, in Jamaica).

person serving another a plate of jerk chicken
Jerk chicken being served ©John Lawson/ Getty Images


1 tbs ground allspice
1 tbs dried thyme
1⁄2 tsp cayenne pepper
1⁄2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 tsp ground sage
3⁄4 tsp ground nutmeg
3⁄4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbs garlic powder
1 tbs molasses
1⁄4 cup (60mL) olive oil
1⁄4 cup (60mL) soy sauce 3⁄4 cup (180mL) apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 cup (125mL) orange juice 2 habañero peppers, finely chopped
3 green onions, peeled and finely chopped
2–3kg (4–61⁄4lb) chicken breasts

How to cook

1. Create the marinade by combining all of the ingredients above in a large bowl. Cover, place in the refrigerator and leave the chicken to marinate overnight.
2. When you are ready to cook, lift out the chicken pieces and cook under a medium-high grill or on a barbecue, turning and basting frequently.

The best places to get jerk chicken are street stands © isthatitsme / Budget Travel

Tasting notes

Good jerk should be simultaneously spicy and sweet, paradoxically simple and complex; the sweetness of molasses brings out the fiery habañero peppers (not for the faint of heart) without masking them, while the hodge-podge of other Caribbean spices adds a veritable bouquet of flavors not found in a typical barbecue dish. The meat, marinated for at least four hours, is tender enough to cut with a spoon. But making it is more art than science, and a true jerk chef cooks as much from intuition as any set recipe. When cooking your own, turn and baste frequently to keep the meat from drying out. Leftover marinade can be boiled (to sterilize it) and used for dipping sauce.

Other recipes in this series

Sarawak Iaksa
Bosnian Burek

Kimchi Jigae

Have you recreated any of the dishes featured in this series so far? Share your pictures with us on Twitter and Instagram by tagging @lonelyplanet. For more great recipes, check out Lonely Planet’s book The World’s Best Spicy Food.

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