Jerk isn’t an insult the West Indies but a type of Jamaican seasoning that traditionally was rubbed into meat for curing. In bygone days, the heat of the Caribbean meant long term meat storage was a dicey proposition at best. Meats (traditionally pork or chicken) would be cured, smoked and then dried using a paste (or dry rub, or both) creating what we call “Jerky.” This fragrant and spicy concoction has basically three main stars with a larger supporting cast. The headliners are scallions, scotch bonnet peppers and allspice. Rounding out the paste is garlic, thyme, some sort of sweet and some sort of salty. The later two usually consisting of brown sugar and soy sauce. The addition of nut meg and cinnamon round out the spice category nicely with the sweet and salty components tempering the heat as well as helping with the curing process. Make no mistake though, jerk is not for the faint of heart. Scotch bonnet peppers are among the hottest on the planet. Milder peppers can be substituted but heat is part of the deal. There’s no getting around it.
With refrigeration being prevalent now, the practice of jerking meats has gone from a necessity to a culinary art form. Tofu, fish and veggies now get the jerk treatment while secret family recipes are handed down and guarded like crown jewels. The open fire for the most part has given way to the oven as well. There are a few places that still cook over a fire but the large pimento wood pyres are more for special events in the islands.
Toronto, has a thriving Jamaican communtiy and boasts several restaurants offering tastes of the tropical island and one of the best is Mr. Jerk. Founded in '79 in a Carribean grocery they opened their first store in 1986. They now boast 6 GTA locations to serve you and are bringing the heat of the West Indies to the people of the north. My usual location is on Don Mills in the “Peanut Plaza.” So named for the peanut shaped island in the middle of Don Mills Rd on which the plaza sits. The broom closet sized place does take out only as a line up of thee or more customers constitutes a line up out the door.
Serving the usual cast of characters such as Curry Chicken and Goat, Jerk Chicken and Pork, Patties (made by Tastee) and Akee and Saltfish. The later being the national dish of Jamaica. Rice and peas being the common accompanying side.
Much like BBQ joints with their smoky, porky aroma, jerk has it’s own Siren’s song. Mornings in and around the city can find you intoxicated by smell of a jerk place gearing up for the days business. Most places roast their wares in an oven but there are a few, particularly in the Eglinton West areas heavily populated by West Indians that grill them in a barrel over charcoal.
Well, on to the food.
Rice and peas are like the pasta of the Caribbean. They often show up for duty. Peas are not peas as we know them though. Pigeon peas are small legumes much like Indian dhal or the black eyed pea. When not in season in Jamaica red or kidney beans are substituted and since it’s never pigeon pea season in Canada, we always get red beans. The rice and beans are cooked together in a coconut milk broth. Other flavourizers can be steeped in the cooking liquid such as thyme sprigs and garlic. Such aromatics are necessary to provided some back bone for the rice when going up against a pungent curry or jerk. While the rice and peas at Mr. Jerk are fine they don't have the background flavours that others do.
The Jerk Pork is wonderfully tender with a nice bark and is somewhat lean. Often times you find a layer of fat and even skin. The less fat content meant the sauce was a little thicker and a bit sweeter but nicely well rounded. The sweetness masked the heat which was a bit of a disappointment at first. I was hoping for much hotter. It was a bit of a Trojan horse though as by the time I finished my lunch my mouth was wide awake and very happy. The sneaky heat was very nice.
The oxtails are quite mild and very tasty. Teetering towards the sweet and sour that some trod upon and showing off the beef flavour of the meat. Said meat is wonderfully tender and holds together nicely on the bone but pulls away very easily and leave a clean piece of skeleton. In other words, cooked perfectly.
The Jerk Chicken is much like the pork although I swear it's hotter. I had chicken one night and pork the other and you'd have a hard time convincing me they're the same heat level. Again, the chicken is cooked perfectly so it's not dry. A half chicken is chopped up and served over top of the rice.
The home made pepper sauce is a real treat too. Slightly tangy with a nice sweet and heat to it. A very nice addition to any dish.
So there you have it. Great Jamaican take away food.
You can find Mr. Jerk at 3050 Don Mills Rd in Toronto or one of their other 5 locations.
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You can also find them on the web
Well that's all for now folks, we'll see ya next time in the food court.