Next-Generation Jerk

Jamaican cuisine has evolved as it has spread

A wonderful culinary breeze has been blowing in from Jamaica. The depth of Jamaican cuisine should be no surprise given the tropical fruits, vegetables, and spices that emerge from the Caribbean island's rich volcanic soil. The result has enlivened restaurant menus and given Americans new seasonings to zest up ordinary meals.

When you mention Jamaican cooking, you're talking first and foremost about the spicy, pit-barbecue style called jerk. The method of preparing meat with a dry rub, using scorching-hot Scotch bonnet peppers, was developed by runaway slaves to spice up the wild boars they chased down while hiding in the Blue Mountains. Over the centuries, the recipe picked up other peppers, garlic, paprika, wild cinnamon, and allspice. But only recently has the intensely aromatic jerk mixture moved off the streets and into restaurants. Even in Jamaica, "it only just hit the dining table in the past 20 years," says Virginia Burke, marketing director of the Walkerswood line of seasonings and author of Walkerswood Caribbean Kitchen (Simon & Schuster).

Lately, chefs have been finding more varied ways to use jerk seasoning -- for sushi, alligator, or sweet potato fries. The Ortanique restaurants, in Coral Gables, Fla., Washington, and Las Vegas, even serve jerk-rubbed Hudson Valley foie gras.

Meanwhile, Jamaican cuisine in general has been getting lighter and more healthful, relying less on coconut oil and starchy yams, cassava, and breadfruit. Jamaican cooks have rediscovered their native tangy fruits, including ackee (the reddish-yellow fruit of an evergreen tree), carambola (or star fruit), and ortanique (a cross between an orange and a tangerine).

FROM THE SOURCE. In the U.S., jamaican-inspired dishes are popping up in restaurants everywhere. At the high end, you can't do better than Ortanique. More mainstream, the Hops Grillhouse & Brewery chain of 74 brew pubs, mainly in the Southeast, has a Jamaican chicken marinated in pineapple, ginger, and soy. Darden (DRI ) Restaurants' 30 Bahama Breezes are also popularizing West Indian cooking.

Cities with a major Jamaican population, such as New York and Toronto, offer the most authentic food. One favorite in Manhattan's Chelsea district is Negril (212 807-6411). Its intensely spiced dishes led one diner to swear in the Zagat's guidebook that "they could jerk my shoe and I'd eat it." Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood boasts the storefront Brawta Caribbean Café (718 855-5515). In Toronto, check out The Real Jerk (416 463-6055).

For those who'd like to try Jamaican cooking at home, many upscale grocers carry the Jamaica-grown Walkerswood and Busha Browne's seasonings. Keep in mind that Jamaican cuisine doesn't have to be scorching. Just keep a light hand on that bottle of jerk sauce.

By Gerry Khermouch

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