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Jamaican `Jerk' Cooking Turns Up the Heat

The spicy Caribbean cuisine, which gives new meaning to the word `marinade,' is catching on as the next ethnic-food trend

WELL mon, here we go.

It looks like we're in the islands. A photo of reggae singer Bob Marley sporting his dreadlocks is superimposed on the green-and-gold Jamaica flag. Huge ceiling fans are ready to provide tropical breezes, which are going to be needed during this meal.

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Yes, there is lots of heat because the meal is goat that has been jerked. Jerked?

Yes, "jerk" - the Jamaican style of cooking.

Jerked food is pork, beef, goat, fish, or chicken that has been marinated for up to 24 hours in a sauce or seasoning usually involving large quantities of allspice, scotch-bonnet peppers, thyme, and ground cinnamon. The term `jerk' also refers to the way each portion is chopped or shredded.

Today, the sauce is a rich mahogany color, the creation of Allan Vernon, known as the King of Jerk, or the Sauce Boss.

Mr. Vernon and his Jerk Paradise restaurant has been initiating New Yorkers into the virtues of eating jerked food for the past 11 years. Now, he is marketing his sauce from California to New York's Gracie Mansion (Mayor David Dinkins's chef recently ordered two cases, thank you).

Within culinary circles, jerk-style cooking is getting as hot as the scotch bonnets used to make the marinades. Chile Pepper Magazine, in its January/February issue, tells its readers to "Do the Jerk." Gourmet magazine, in its February issue, warms up its readers with jerked chicken.

"Caribbean cooking is picking up, and you see more of it now," says Nancy Gerlach, editor of Chile Pepper. Ms. Gerlach says she has even found Caribbean food in New Mexico, thousands of miles from Jamaica. "You are starting to see more and more of it at the Fiery Food Show [a trade show]," she says.

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Tim Edson, the president of the mail-order specialty house Mo Hotta-Mo Betta, says jerk food is spreading the same way Mexican food did. "The `foodies' know about it, but the everyday person is not as educated," says Mr. Edson.

Vernon knows that jerk is catching on because he gets phone calls from specialty food stores and restaurants ordering his sauce. He thumbs through his order book: food outlets from Oklahoma to Rhode Island are soaking up the sauce. Another sign of jerk's trendiness: A Tokyo restaurant is now serving the food.

What's behind the hot cuisine is a style of cooking with some fairly old traditions. Vernon thinks it has some African roots, noting that the Ashanti tribe in Africa uses some similar cooking techniques.

Jerk scholars don't go that far back, but they trace the style of cooking back to the "maroons," or runaway African slaves released by the Spanish after the British conquered the island in 1655. The maroons, fighting the redcoats, were constantly on the move in the mountainous interior. They had to cook when they had the chance.

"It's common to find some means to preserve foods by smoking or seasoning," explains Wayne McCook, press secretary for the Jamaican Embassy in Washington.

The maroons started with pork, coating the meat with spices, particularly pimento, also known as allspice. By cooking the meat slowly, the Jamaicans allowed the spices to permeate the meat.

Today, their descendants serve jerked food all over the island. But Jamaicans go to an area of their country called the Boston Bay for what is supposed to be the best jerk around.

In fact, Jamaica now exports the spices and sauces around the world. The Mo Hotta Mo Betta mail-order company carries the Island Pit, Walkerswood, Boston Bay, Uncle Bum's, and Vernon's marinades as well as the Jamaican Dry Jerk seasoning.

It's common to serve rice and beans with jerked foods. Vernon cooks the rice in unsweetened coconut milk. For a more gourmet touch, he includes fried-green plantains with a chien sauce (a spicy dipping sauce) and salt-cod fritters.

The jerk sauces also work on non-Caribbean foods. Chile Pepper produces a hearts-of-palm jerk salad. Vernon says his sauce works well on pastas.

Many Caribbean restaurants use jerk seasonings instead of marinades. The marinades, however, have a multitude of uses.

"They tenderize the tough, moisten the dry, and enliven the bland," writes Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins in the New Basics Cookbook.

Dry jerk seasoning adds some life but it doesn't give foods the same depth of flavor as marinating in jerk sauce, as proved in a seasoned chicken dish I had at the restaurant Jamaica, Jamaica, outside Durham, N.C.

Vernon maintains that cooking jerk requires patience. In fact, he believes the best jerk should marinate for about 24 hours. He marinates large batches 48 hours ahead of cooking.

Both the seasonings and marinades tend to use scotch-bonnet peppers. When the peppers are not available, Vernon uses scotch-bonnet pepper flakes.

Vernon says he believes the soil in Jamaica gives the peppers a certain flavor not obtainable from other tongue-searing varieties.

Although Vernon uses the scotch bonnet, his sauce seems to cut the heat.

"People keep trying a little bit more and by the end of the meal are saying, `this is not that hot,' " Vernon says.

Well, maybe. But on a cold winter night, the food might make you think of warmer places.

And, at the very least it will give you internal heat, Jamaica style.

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