My father, whose mother was Jamaican and whose father was Nigerian, used to bring me to Little Jamaica in the Bronx for dinner. We’d sit by the side of the road, with an open container of jerk chicken. Though I was a boy, I felt like a grown man, next to him, a man with a mouth on fire. Jerk chicken is spicy by nature. What was once a method of preparing food surreptitiously by Jamaican Maroons has become Jamaica’s greatest contribution to the culinary canon: a tapestry of flavors, aromatics and spices.
In Little Jamaica, these come alive in jerk shacks, in grocery stores and in bakeries with freshly made beef patties and coco bread. Little Jamaica will always be my true Jamaica. So much so, in fact, that when I finally did go to the island, I remember thinking it just seemed like a bigger version of the Bronx. And when I had the jerk there, I was immediately transported back to those hot New York nights with my dad.
For the ginger-garlic purée:
Combine all the ingredients in a high-powered blender or food processor and process until smooth.
For the spice pickling liquid:
Place all the ingredients into a medium pot and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat.
Let cool completely, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve and transfer to a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.
For the peppa sauce:
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor.
Process until smooth, then transfer to a jar.
Place a sheet of wax paper on top and then screw on the lid (the paper prevents the vinegar from reacting with the lid).
Let sit in a cool, dark place for a day, then move the jar to the refrigerator.
For the jerk paste:
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend on high until they form a smooth paste.
For the jerk barbecue sauce:
Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat.
When it shimmers, add the ginger-garlic purée and onions.
Sauté until the onions start to become translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium heat; simmer gently, uncovered, for 1 hour, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning. The sauce should be thick, glossy and deep red.
Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend on high until completely smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
For the brine:
Combine all the ingredients but the ice, squeezing in the lime juice and dropping in the lime quarter, with 2 cups of water in a medium pot over medium heat.
Cook, stirring, until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat, add the ice and stir until all the ice has melted.
For the chicken:
Place the chicken in a large zip-top bag and pour the brine over it.
Seal the bag, pushing out as much air as possible, and place in a large bowl.
Transfer to the refrigerator at least overnight and for up to 48 hours.
Discard the brine then transfer the chicken to a large bowl. Toss with jerk paste and ginger-garlic purée, then cover the bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours.
One hour before you’re ready to grill, soak the wood chips.
Heat the grill to medium heat. If using charcoal, pour the (soaked and drained) wood chips over it. If using a gas grill, pour the drained wood chips into a disposable foil pan, cover tightly with foil, and use a sharp knife to poke a few holes in the foil so smoke can escape.
Set the pan of wood chips in the back corner of the grill. Once the chips begin smoking, remove the chicken from the marinade, letting any excess drip back into the bowl.
Grill the chicken for 30 minutes, turning frequently to ensure a deep and even char.
In the last 10 minutes, brush the chicken with jerk barbecue sauce each time you turn.