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Jamaica: In Search of The Real Jerk

Scotch Bonnet, Maynefoto
Scotch Bonnet

The first thing I do when I arrive in Montego Bay is find a spot for jerk pork. I’d start tasting it, and yes, it’s always pork, before the plane even lands.

For years, Scotchies, a little joint about 1-2 Jamaican miles from the airport on the north coast road between Montego Bay and Falmouth did the trick.

But the last time I went to Scotchies (MoBay), my mouth watering in anticipation of the jerk pork that I knew would be succulent, seasoned through and through with the right balance of Scotch Bonnet peppers, scallion, thyme, a little mace and sugar rubbed in, then slowly cooked over pimento wood, I was disappointed.

While the pork was succulent, it was bland! Nary a Scotch Bonnet in sight!

Who ever said jerk should be this bland? By definition, jerk, The Real Jerk, must have a reasonable amount of the fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper.

A trip to The Pork Pit on Gloucester Avenue in town was marginally less disappointing. I blame the need to please visitors and make more money.

What’s Jerk?

Jerk is a way of cooking that was created in Jamaica. It involved rubbing the meat with a mixture of spices and cooking it over a pimento fire. The pimento wood adds a distinct smoky flavor. Jerk also refers to the spices that are used to marinate the meat.

Jerk and drinks at Scotchies, Mobay
Enjoying the company of friends at Scotchies, MoBay

Jerk has been a part of my life since childhood. As a little girl, I remember a man (known only as “The Jerk Man”), who would ride around our district usually on a Saturday evening selling jerk pork – it was only pork then – from a pan that was attached to the handlebars of his bicycle. The pork was suspended on a mesh layer over pimento coals in a tray just below. We could smell it way before The Jerk Man arrived at our gate.

Sometime between my childhood and high school, jerk pork all but disappeared, perhaps because of the influence of Rastafarianism and their abhorrence of pork. When it came back in the 70s, it had expanded to include chicken, fish, even sausage.

In time, the knowledge of how jerk was made went from a few cooks, mostly male, who knew the (then secret) ingredients to a bottled wet or dry rub that became available locally and internationally initially to satisfy the palates of the growing number of Jamaicans who lived abroad.

But something got lost in the transition from a few local cooks to international recognition – everyone was free to put their own interpretation on what jerk was supposed to be. But I knew I could always count on finding the Real Jerk in Jamaica.

Not anymore. At least, not in any area that sees a lot of visitors. Something about wanting to make jerk palatable to them and therefore make more sales produce a jerk that’s nothing like how I know jerk is supposed to taste.

(A few years ago, even the Jamaica Tourist Board announced a culinary Jerk Trail, which allows visitors to sample the real thing.)

For true aficianados of The Real Jerk, come with me to one of my favorite places. It’s right on the border of Hanover and Westmoreland and called appropriately, Border Jerk. (I also have to mention Boston Jerk in Boston Bay, Portland, the jerk capital of Jamaica.) There you’ll get some good jerk pork. For those who don’t like pork, there’s chicken, Festival (flour and cornmeal mixture) and soup. If the jerk’s too hot, wash it down with a bottle of Ting, a carbonated grapefruit drink. Me, I prefer a rum and Ting.

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Jamaica: Little Ochie Delivers Big Taste

Way down on the southwestern coast of Jamaica, just over the Manchester border from St. Elizabeth is a seaside restaurant called Little Ochie (not to be confused with Ocho Rios on the island’s north coast).

Started in 1989 by Evrol “Blackie” Christian, this little spot has become a favorite destination for Jamaicans (some of whom travel 2-3 hours to get there) and visitors alike who are looking for freshly caught fish and seafood cooked to order.

Little Ochie boat table
Boat Table

Strewn on the black sand of Alligator Pond as if they had been scattered by some unseen hand, are canoes – the primary means of getting the fish that’s served and sold here – that now have been raised off the sand, outfitted with tables and benches, and sheltered by thatched roofs.

Once you place your order, for fish or seafood, and decide how you want it done – steamed, jerked, fried or grilled – it is prepared and brought to your table.

FoodieTuesday Steamed fish with vegetables Little Ochie
Steamed Fish with potato, carrots, okra, bammie
Jerk Lobster from Little Ochie
Jerk Lobster

I’ve had the steamed snapper and it is delicious. The jerked lobster is to die for but if you visit between April 1st and June 30th, you’ll be out of luck. It is illegal in Jamaica for anyone to have or serve lobsters, whole or in part — this is so that the lobsters can breed and replenish.

You can also select sides: roasted breadfruit, bammie or rice and peas. While you wait for your order, grab a cold Red Stripe, rum and Coke or any drink from their extensive selection, or watch the fishermen push off or return from fishing.

Little Ochie Boats
Pushing out to sea

Little Ochie is more than a restaurant, it’s an experience that delivers big taste without breaking the bank.

Little Ochie,
 or 876-610-6566

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