One of the most frequently asked questions about Jamaican cuisine is if Jamaican pan chicken is different than jerk chicken. There are many similarities, but according to Jamaican cooks, the distinction is in the cooking method.
Today, many Jamaican cooks say it’s not true jerk chicken unless it’s cooked in a used oil barrel that’s been repurposed and fashioned into a makeshift grill. The oil barrels have become as well known throughout the island as the jerk chicken. Others say pan chicken is what results from cooking it in the drum. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
Jerk cooking dates back to the Maroons who were descendants of runaway African slaves. They emulated the cooking methods of the Caribbean’s indigenous Taino and Arawak Indians. They slow-cooked the meat and fish they caught over an open fire to avoid detection. The wood they used was pimento, also known as allspice. It gave the meat a very distinctive flavor and produced a juicy and flavorful main course.
As the Maroons slowly gained more rights and modernized, the use of allspice wood declined for cooking and people began seeking new ways to imitate the allspice flavoring that was an essential element in jerk cooking. To compensate, a combination of cinnamon, cloves and thyme was used to mimic the flavor. Those three ingredients, along with Scotch bonnet pepper and allspice, are now staples in the creation of jerk chicken.
During this time, the island focused more on mining and manufacturing. With few natural gas resources, imported oil was relied on heavily which resulted in an excess of metal oil drums. Innovative Jamaicans began cleaning the oil drums to remove oil residue, repurposing them for cooking, and drum pan chicken was born.
The iconic drums are still prevalent in Jamaica. Many individuals have one of the drums in their yard for cooking during gatherings of family and friends. They can also be seen on street corners and alongside roadways where vendors cook and sell meat and fish to hungry customers.
The debate over whether a meal is pan chicken or jerk chicken continues to rage for purists and won’t be settled anytime soon. What began as slow-cooked food by the island’s indigenous people over an allspice wood fire has transitioned. To be considered jerk chicken, the fowl is now dry-rubbed or marinated with spices to obtain the unique allspice flavor and cooked in converted oil drums.
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