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Jerk chicken image header
Jerk chicken image header

What is Jamaican jerk cuisine, and why is it so popular in Chicago?


Tesnim Hassan has lived in the Chicago area for about 10 years. But she’s originally from Los Angeles.

Back in L.A, she grew up in Leimert Park, a diverse neighborhood home to immigrants from all over the world. Hassan, who is African American, enjoys connecting with Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica. She loves Jamaican culture, the music and cuisine, including its tasty jerk sauce – a mix of savory, sweet and spicy flavors that complement all kinds of grilled meats.

In Chicago, she has made friends with Caribbean immigrants, some of them Jamaican. And she has also found a ton of Jamaican jerk restaurant options – way more than she ever did in L.A.

During her commute to work, Hassan can easily drive by about 30 jerk chicken places, “No exaggerating,” she said.

That led her to ask Curious City: Why are there so many jerk restaurants in Chicago? And she wonders if there’s a big enough Jamaican community to justify all of these spots.

There are several layers to that answer. The simple one: Many Chicagoans love jerk, and its popularity has created a demand for more restaurants. A quick search on Yelp revealed 218 jerk restaurants in Chicagoland, and that doesn’t even include food stands and restaurants that offer jerk options.

Hassan is right. The Jamaican population in the Chicago area isn’t huge.

Recent census data indicates that about 20,000 Jamaicans were living in the Chicago metropolitan area in 2021 – about the same size as L.A. but significantly less than other metro areas like New York and Miami. But even though the Jamaican population is relatively small, Jamaicans in Chicago have made a mark culturally and socially on the city. Jamaican food, including jerk, may be the most visible one, but it's certainly not the only one.

Jamaicans influence in Chicago goes beyond food

Since the turn of the twentieth century Jamaican migration to the U.S. and Chicago has been influenced by a search for livable wages and new opportunities.

During World War II, U.S. companies were heavily recruiting thousands of agricultural, domestic and health care workers from the Caribbean including Jamaica, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In the 1950 and 60s some of that migration was also influenced by Jamaicans seeking higher education in Chicago and other parts of the country. Many sought engineering degrees or pursued nursing jobs.

Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962. Soon after, U.S. immigration reforms like the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 opened the doors for Caribbean immigrants, many of whom chose Chicago as their home. The Hart Celler Act put an end to long-standing immigration policy that favored those from northern and western Europe.

Some experts believe Jamaicans in Chicago have electrified the local Black community.

“Through reggae, through music, through Bob Marley, through rastafarianism, through food,” said Erik S. McDuffie, associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The pride of the people is infectious.”

McDuffie said leaders like Marcus Garvey, co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), played a key role in the empowerment of Black people across the world and the U.S., including in Chicago.

“The Midwest, Chicago in particular, was a hotspot of Garveyism during the early ’20s,” said McDuffie, adding that Garveyism laid the foundation for numerous Black power movements.

Chef Mark Johnson’s recipe for jerk

Mark Johnson, also known as Belly, is one of the many proud Jamaicans living on Chicago’s South Side.

He’s been running a food business called Belly Up for two decades. He caters during the winter and in warmer months he sets up his grill by a local South Side beach. This summer he plans to set up shop by the 57th Street Beach.

“When I came to America, I couldn't find nothing fit to my taste buds,” Johnson said. ”And that's when I really started cooking for myself. Just like I was raised.” He soon started sharing his dishes with friends and neighbors. “I gave people a sample and everybody go crazy about it."

His Jamaican-style dishes include jerk chicken, jerk lamb chops, curry chicken, yellow and white rice, red snapper and fried plantains.

He starts by making the authentic jerk sauce using fresh herbs like ginger, garlic, pimento seeds, thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and garlic – never the powdered spices.

Then, he says the secret to the best dishes is how long you marinate the meat, how fresh the sauce is and the way you grill it. In Jamaica, people use pimento wood which gives the meat a smoky flavor.

But Belly said there is also one more essential ingredient, the music.

“So the music and the food just go perfect together,” Johnson said. “Good music, good food, you can't beat that."

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZCuriousCity and @AdrianaCardMag.

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