Jerk is a cooking style that was first created by the Arawack Indians, native to Jamaica. Meats or fish are rubbed with a fragrant blend of spices and hot peppers and then grilled over an open flame. The term “jerk” comes from the Spanish term "charqui," which means “dried meat.” Though this method of cooking works with a variety of meats and seafood, it is a particularly tasty way to cook catfish. Jerk seasoning complements the mild flavor of catfish and the firm flesh of the fish holds its shape well when grilling.
Sweet and Savory
Jerk seasoning was first used as a way to preserve meats in the scorching Jamaican heat. The seasoning is created by mixing a variety of sweet and savory components. The spices used to create this fragrant mix include allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, salt and pepper. Scotch bonnet pepper, a hot chili pepper, gives this blend its kick. Garlic and scallions are also blended in for added flavor. Brown sugar or honey can be added for sweetness and a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar add tang as well as moisture to the seasoning mix. Experiment with different ratios to get the desired taste from your jerk mix.
Preparing the Fish
Jerk seasoning can a wet or dry mix. The dry ingredients are added to a blender and pulsed until fine. To create a wet seasoning blend, olive oil and vinegar are added to the mix to form a paste. The paste is easier to apply to the fish. Clean and gut the catfish if using whole. Rub the seasoning onto the fish and then let it marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours. When ready to cook, place the fish on a piece of oiled aluminum foil and wrap it up.
Grilled to Perfection
The term “jerk” not only refers to the seasoning but also to the method in which the meats are cooked. Throughout the Caribbean, steel drums are the gear of choice for jerk cooking. The pans are filled with a mixture of charcoal and the branches, leaves and berries from the pimento plant. This plant, also known as allspice, infuses the meats with its distinctive aromatic and smoky flavor. You can use a similar method to cook with a standard grill by using charcoal briquettes and small pieces of aromatic wood branches or chips. Food can be cooked directly on the grill grates or wrapped in foil. Grill the fish on the lowest heat until done and the fish flakes easily.
Variations and Side Dishes
Jerk seasoning also works well with many other types of fish as well as shrimp. Choose fresh, firm-fleshed fish such as flounder, snapper, sole or bluefish for the best results. A variety of accompaniments is traditionally served with jerk catfish. Rice and peas is a standard Jamaican side dish made with rice, colorful red peas, lots of garlic and hot peppers. Festival, fried bread flavored with sugar and vanilla, goes well with jerk as the sweetness of the bread complements the spices on the fish. You can also serve jerk catfish with hard dough, or hardo, a moist, sweet bread that is a staple in Jamaican cuisine. In addition to these offerings, the sweet and tangy flavors of grilled pineapple deliciously complement grilled catfish.
Candi Canncel is a writer covering food and drinks, travel and lifestyle. Her work has appeared on Food and Wine Travel, Craft Gossip, Belltown Local and other publications. She also teaches cooking classes and hosts food/wine seminars.