This post is part of a segment where I recreate the recipes of those around me. I am forever curious about the homecooked food my friends and family subsist on and nourish themselves with – what are their lazy day go-to meals? What do they turn to when they feel like making a splash in the kitchen? What is their definition of comfort food? I will explore these questions through my histamine-intolerant lens, but will include the original recipes for those who don’t get bloated off everything.
What: An incredibly hearty yet simple meal with fascinating history
Who: Green Thumb Illustrator i.e. Sarah Firth
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
One of my favourite things to do on Instagram is watching friends’ stories and hassling them for recipes of whatever delicious-looking dish they’ve uploaded, which is exactly what I did to Green Thumb Illustrator when she posted a picture of this jerk chicken and sweet potato with coconut rice and beans. When Green Thumb Illustrator isn’t painstakingly typing out recipes for distribution, she helps me with every plant query I have, which are manifold, and keeps busy being an award-winning illustrator, comic artist and graphic recorder.
Green Thumb Illustrator first learnt about jerk chicken through her sister.
“My sister first introduced me to Jamaican jerk spice many years ago, when she was living in Brixton, London. She gifted me a jar of jerk spice mix, and when it ran out I attempted to create my own from what I could get my hands on.”
Jerk chicken has its roots in Jamaica and this New York Times piece entitled Sweet Heat: For Jamaicans, It’s About Jerk, which I’ll be paraphrasing heavily from, is a fascinating read on its heritage and evolution. Taino Indians – the Indigenous peoples of Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Puerto Rice and the Bahamas – used the sweet wood of allspice trees to cook local wild pigs. This smoking method evolved further when Jamaican Maroons, descendants of African slaves, taught the Taino their technique of smoking food in pits dug into the earth. The words ‘jerk’ and ‘jerky’ themselves can be traced to the Spanish word ‘charqui’ derived from the Quechua word ‘ch’arki’, which refers to a specific form of dried and deboned meat. Pork and goat were prime candidates for this preparatory style, but chicken has emerged as a popular alternative as well.
With such a rich history and particularly distinct preparation method, can any chicken with a spice-laden seasoning prepared on a grill be called ‘jerk chicken’? Marilyn Reid, a Jamaican New York-based chef interviewed in the New York Times piece, says no.
“You have to taste that scallion, taste that fresh herb, taste that Scotch bonnet…You can’t just throw some sauce on grilled chicken and call it jerk.”
I find this point endlessly fascinating. Can you call a vegan Vietnamese noodle soup phở when a phở is traditionally made with beef soup bones? Can a Moroccan slow-cooked stew be termed a tagine if it’s not made in the conical earthenware pot it’s named after?
Whichever rendition of jerk chicken you’re making, allspice, fresh ginger, thyme, spring onions and Scotch bonnet peppers are mainstays. Green Thumb Illustrator’s shortcut method of using Cajun seasoning – which contains thyme, chilli, onion, paprika and fennel – alongside a knob of ginger, jalapeño, spring onions and a host of other aromatics ensures it’s a loyal interpretation. I researched Scotch bonnet peppers and unfortunately they’re only available in Jamaican and American specialty stores, but comment below if you’ve found it elsewhere!
In the absence of a gas charcoal grill or a barbecue with wood chips, Green Thumb Illustrator’s method of sticking the marinated chicken in the oven made it replicable in my tiny apartment.
Jerk chicken is commonly served with coconut rice; fresh fruit like pineapple, mango and papaya; black beans; and coleslaw. Green Thumb Illustrator retained the coconut rice, swapped out black beans for the equally popular side kidney beans, and roasted some sweet potatoes for the welcome sweetness typically provided by tropical fruits.
I hope you enjoy learning about and cooking this rich, hearty and nutritious meal as much as I did! The seasoning on the moist, superbly roasted chicken was spicy and smoky with a tinge of sweetness, complemented further by the sweet potatoes left to caramelise in the oven. The kidney beans peppered in amongst the rich coconut milk-cooked rice made it quite a heavy meal, so we had enough leftovers for two portions.
It was a three-bloat outcome due to the amalgam of a dozen different spices, and the rich coconut rice caused my gallbladder-less body to revolt with the familiar sensation of heartburn, so if I were to make it again, I’d swap out the coconut rice with plain rice. If your body tolerates high-fat substances better than mine, I’d highly recommend retaining it.
I’ve included Green Thumb Illustrator’s original instructions below, with my additional comments in italics.
Jerk chicken and sweet potato with coconut rice and beans (an original recipe by Sarah Firth)
6 chicken thighs (I used boneless ones)
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup white rice (I used basmati)
1 270ml tin coconut milk (Ayam brand only!)
1 400g tin kidney beans
Half a bunch of coriander leaves
1/3 packet of a Cajun or Jamaican spice mix (I used 2 tablespoons of this hot Cajun seasoning because I couldn’t find this particular brand that Sarah uses)
A knob of ginger, loosely chopped
A few sprigs of coriander stems and leaves
1 large jalapeño / red chilli (depending on how spicy you like it)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 garlic cloves
2 spring onions / 1/2 Spanish onion
1/3 cup olive oil
Teaspoon or pinch of salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Blend the jerk mixture in either a blender or a bamix stick blender until it forms a paste. Place both the chicken thighs and chopped up sweet potato in a big bowl, and rub the paste all over the chicken and sweet potato.
Lay out on baking sheets. Cook for 20 minutes, check and turn the sweet potato over (leave the chicken). Cook for another 20 minutes.
Pro-tip: start with slightly frozen chicken so they don’t overcook and get dry. (I didn’t do this, but luckily my chicken didn’t turn out dry – yay for chicken thighs!)
As the chicken and sweet potato are cooking, get the rice ready. I used a rice cooker on the quick 30-minute white rice setting – set and forget, and stir only twice but you can use the stove as well. If using the stove, put the rice and coconut milk in a pan, bring to a boil, turn to low, and stir consistently until cooked with the lid on to keep the moisture in. It might take between 15–30 minutes for the rice to cook.
Once cooked, drain the kidney beans and add to the rice to warm through. Add chopped coriander to taste (I like a lot, like half a bunch of leaves).
Add salt to taste and serve with the jerk chicken and sweet potato!