The Food Guy: Jamaican cuisine

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Jamaican Independence Day is this Sunday, and NBC 5's Food Guy Steve Dolinsky felt the urge to go in search of the island nation’s best-known dish.

It’s called “jerk” – and it stems from a seasoning and preservation method, developed by the indigenous people, who later taught it to African slaves. The tradition continues to this day.

A predecessor to beef jerky, jerk chicken means using allspice, plus fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers. Those slaves – called The Maroons – seasoned their chicken to preserve it, then cooked it underground to evade British troops. There are lots of jerk joints in Chicago, including one on the Southwest Side that’s worth the trip.

The fire and smoke rises from the custom-built grill pretty much all day, inside St. Bess Jerk, located between a nail salon and a barber in a Burbank strip mall. Incidentally, they have another location in Norwood Park, on Northwest Highway. Named for the owner’s hometown of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, they focus on just a couple of things, but mainly jerk chicken. The dipping sauce doubles as a marinade, and it contains two crucial ingredients.

“Scotch Bonnet pepper. You know you have to have that and allspice. If you don’t have those two, that’s not a jerk,” said Ricardo Blake, the cook and owner.

Blake makes the sauce throughout the day. Fresh scallions are a must, and so is a handful of fresh thyme – stems and all. Then those fiery, orange Scotch Bonnet chiles, knobs of fresh ginger and a handful or two of fresh garlic and white onions. He adds about a half a cup of vinegar to aid in blending, then some poultry seasoning and the ground allspice.

Blended until smooth, the sauce is poured over and rubbed throughout half chickens.

“First you marinate them overnight, to give that flavor,” he said.

Next day, it’s onto the grill, which sits directly above the hardwood charcoal. So it’s technically not a slow smoke, but rather, a high heat grill. Chickens are removed after about 35 minutes, and the result is a juicy bird with a nicely charred and seasoned exterior. The marinade penetrates it, but you might need to add additional sauce.

Sides are also worth a taste – all orders come with rice and beans, and if you like, gravy, but then you have to make some decisions.

“So we have cabbage, mac and cheese, candied yams, corn…”

Blake says he doesn’t offer jerk egg rolls or other riffs on his native cuisine. He prefers keeping the menu simple.

“Keep it authentic,” he said. “If it’s not hot, spicy, it’s no jerk,” he said.

Here's where you can go:

St. Bess Jerk

4838 W. 79th St., Burbank


5729 N. Northwest Hwy.


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