On Saturday mornings all over Kingston, Jamaica, cooks fire up the jerk pans. These characteristic grills—industrial steel-drums- turned-smokers—appear on every street corner. When I asked my taxi driver to find the best jerk chicken en route to Norman Manly International Airport, he detoured down a cul-de-sac near a soccer stadium to a stand run by his aunt, Joan Henry.
A buxom woman wearing a hairnet, Joan started a fire with dry coconut husks and chunks of piment (allspice) charcoal on a hinged, 55-gallon jerk pan. She tossed several chopped-up chickens on the grill and then, in a sink next to her kitchen shed, blended her sauce from scratch: scallions, thyme, garlic, vinegar, sugar, browning sauce, and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers that imbue this Caribbean barbecue with its distinctive searing heat.
As she spooned the sauce atop the sizzling meat, three local girls clustered around the grill. During my week on the island, I had sampled plenty of jerk chicken, but this batch had a unique aroma of woodsy spice and fresh herbs that was unlike any other I had smelled. When I took a bite, I found the sauce milder than most, but that peppery tropical kick lingered on my tongue. Before climbing back into the cab, I slipped Joan some cash to buy lunch for the girls playing among plumes of smoke. —Shane Mitchell