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Jerk Chicken Tacos

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Jerk Chicken Tacos are the epitome of fusion cuisine: boneless chicken marinated in Jamaican jerk seasoning and olive oil, then grilled to perfection and paired with a vibrant pineapple salsa in corn tortillas for the perfect sweet and spicy taco combo.

Jerk chicken tacos with slaw and radishes on a wooden plate.

Few dishes can pack a punch quite like jerk chicken tacos. This fusion of Caribbean heat and Mexican flair is a dream for spice lovers. The heat can definitely be controlled, but we’ll get to that later. 

I experienced authentic Jerk chicken several years ago while on vacation in the Caribbean, and it’s one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever had. I’ve been intrigued and have tried to recreate it since, but there seems to be something more to it than just following a recipe.

Why You Will Love Jerk Chicken Tacos

Versatility – These Jerk Chicken Tacos are customizable. They can easily adapt to/with other flavors, like changing up the slaw to add celery strips and blue cheese (minus the pineapple) for more of a Buffalo-type jerk-style taco. You can add or remove as much as you want, and this is especially important for leftovers.

The History of Jerk Chicken Tacos

First, let’s talk about the history a bit.

Jamaican jerk is actually a form of cooking and a seasoning that originated with freed slaves (known as the Maroons) who fled to the mountains of Jamaica. They used the herbs and spices available to them on the island, which were also used to preserve meats. 

The allspice berries, which are from the pimento bush, were used to mimic the smoky flavor of pimento wood that was historically used to cook jerk meats deep in the ground. The Jamaican Maroons, who were once enslaved thanks to Spain, found freedom in the Jamaican mountains. 

The Maroons used pimento wood to cook the jerk meat underground; otherwise, smoke would give their location away. They made smokeless pits for wild boar meat that was seasoned with pimento berries, salt, and bird peppers and roasted over dying embers.

Over the years, the term “jerk” has acquired multiple meanings, including flavor, marinade, cooking technique, and even origin of ingredients. The meat cooked with jerk seasoning presently is usually chicken or pork, and the spicy jerk rub or marinade is typically made with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, with allspice being the main key ingredient. 

Jerk chicken tacos on a wooden plate with radishes.

The word “jerk” itself is said to have originated from the Spanish word “charqui,” which means dried meat, similar to the concept of jerky.

The scotch bonnet pepper is largely responsible for the heat in Caribbean jerk seasoning, although the basic recipe has been modified and has evolved over time.

There are four elements of the jerk seasoning that Jamaicans insist constitute jerk – scotch bonnet pepper, spring onion, thyme, and allspice (or pimento bush). If these elements aren’t present, the seasoning isn’t technically jerk. Also, for authenticity, Jamaican Jerk meats are smoked but can be grilled. Toasting the spices before coating the meat increases the intensity of the flavor and adds a bit of a crunch to the outside of the chicken when it’s grilled. 

The technique of cooking jerk (or jerking) meats varies. Jerk pork was traditionally cooked slowly in underground pits (to hide billowing smoke from their masters) or smoked over pimento wood. Now, smokers or wood-burning ovens are used. 

Not just a culinary fusion, jerk is an “enduring legacy of the fusion of African and Taino cultures in Jamaica.” It was a fusion of two cultures that bonded and cooked together in the pre-colonial Caribbean. 

Jamaican jerk is not only a cooking technique or seasoning; to Jamaicans, it’s a full experience that can’t be lost in translation. It is a part of their family history, culture, and tradition passed down from generation to generation.

In August 2018, Jamie Oliver faced social ridicule for his “Punchy Jerk Rice” and was accused of cultural “appropriation.” It was argued that Jerk isn’t a thing that could be used as a label for selling products but is a seasoning meant to be smoked or barbecued, and “rice can’t be barbecued.”

The Jerk Chicken Taco Twist

In the spirit of fusion cuisine, Jerk Chicken decided to take a little vacation from the Caribbean and make a pitstop in Mexico

That’s where the magic happens, dear readers. Our beloved Jerk Chicken, all seasoned and smoky, gets folded into a soft corn tortilla, and it’s a match made in foodie heaven. 

A taco is a perfect canvas for jerk chicken; there is plenty of room for customization and toppings. These tacos are typically served with salsa or slaw made with fruit, a delicious contrast to the smoky heat. 

Tips and Tricks for Jerk Chicken Tacos:

  • If you can’t find scotch bonnet peppers, use habanero or jalapeno. I used both. Also, if you can’t tolerate heat very well, you may want to half the amount of peppers in the marinade. 
  • When handling peppers, make sure to remove the ribs and seeds from the peppers before you chop them or put them in a food processor because those hold most of the heat in the peppers. Wear gloves while handling peppers; the oil from the seeds and lining of the peppers will transfer from your fingers onto anything you touch (your eyes!) and burn.
  • Skin-on, bone-in chicken tends to have the best flavor, even if you remove the skin before cooking. Just make sure to brush a little more marinade on your chicken before putting it on the grill.
  • Marinate your meat for at least an hour and up to 24 hours. I found that overnight is the perfect amount of time for maximum flavor. I like to punch holes in thick areas of meat using a fork so the marinade can penetrate deeply.
  • You can make your own seasoning by using my recipe or use this seasoning in the jar, Walkerswood Jamaican Jerk seasoning. I have been told that it has the closest taste to authentic jerk flavor, and it comes in mild and hot & spicy. I’ve used it before, and it’s good.
Jerk chicken tacos with slaw and radishes on a wooden plate.

What is Served with Jerk Chicken Tacos?

  • Baked fries or diced potatoes. Try Mexican street fries
  • A big salad, pasta salad, or wedge. Try a tossed salad with homemade everything bagel salad dressing. 
  • Chips and salsa or queso are always a hit with tacos. Try shrimp ceviche or white jalapeno dip
  • Guacamole goes great with tacos, and I have several versions. Try pineapple guacamole, salsa verde guacamole, or kiwi guacamole.  
  • A creamy corn dish is a great compliment to tacos. Try jalapeno corn souffle or elote in a cup

Variations

  • Instead of corn tortillas, try flour tortillas or crunchy taco shells or turn them into chicken tostadas – simply swap out the chipotle chicken for jerk chicken.
  • For a carb-free version, make a jerk chicken salad. Combine some of the jerk marinade (extra, NOT what you used) with plain Greek yogurt to make a dressing. Top with grilled pineapple, queso fresco, and crispy tortilla strips. 
  • Make jerk chicken nachos (simply swap the shredded chicken for jerk chicken in these nachos) with leftover chicken and top with shredded Monterey jack cheese, sliced jalapenos, and black olives. 
  • Make jerk chicken sliders with yeast or Hawaiian rolls by topping shredded chicken with slaw.
  • Use some of the leftover chopped chicken to make a chicken salad to stuff in croissants or eat with crackers.  
  • Stuff a baked potato with jerk chicken, top with shredded cheese, sour cream, and chives.

Ingredients

Chicken

Chicken breasts and thighs with bones: Bone in chicken is better than boneless because the bones add more flavor while cooking, and the chicken tends to be more tender.

Allspice: This is the “hallmark” of spices that gives Jerk seasoning its unique flavor.

Onion powder: Onion seasoning in powder form has a strong onion flavor, and can take the place of onion in dishes.

Garlic powder: A pungent seasoning that also has health benefits.

Thyme: An aromatic herb that adds depth of flavor.

Nutmeg: A warm and subtly spicy addition to this spice blend.

Clove: A spice with camphor and pepper.

Cinnamon:  An aromatic spice that adds to the warmth of Jerk seasoning.

Paprika: A spice made from ground red peppers, this is a commonly used powder that is important to the Jerk seasoning.

Sea salt: Sea salt in coarse form, this is the seasoning that brings flavor to life in all food.

Brown Sugar: A little sweetness to counter the fire that Jerk seasoning brings.

Dried Scotch Bonnet pepper: This is the pepper traditionally used in Jerk seasoning, but jalapeno can also be used if Scotch Bonnet pepper can’t be found.

Olive Oil: Olive oil is used to combine the seasonings into a paste and for browning the chicken.

Pineapple Slaw

Pineapple: Pineapple is the “sweet” in the sweet and savory slaw for the tacos.

Angel Hair Slaw: Cabbage is finely shredded very thin, like “angel hair” pasta.

Purple Cabbage: Sometimes mistaken for radicchio, this is cabbage that is also known as red cabbage.

Mayo*: Mayonnaise, made with oil, eggs and lemon juice, is the binding ingredient in the slaw.

Sea Salt: Sea salt brings out the flavor in this slaw.

Ground Pepper: Ground from peppercorns, this is a warm spice that adds a counter element to salt.

Tacos

White Corn Tortillas: Made in rounds, these are made from white cornmeal and hold the fillings for the Jerk Chicken Tacos.

Queso fresco: Queso Fresco is a popular cheese, specifically in South America, and is a good cooling counter to the heat in Jerk Chicken.

Radishes: Radishes are small, red root vegetables that are sliced and are another cooling balance for topping Jerk Chicken Tacos.

Avocado: Avocados are a fruit that is typically used to make guacamole. They can also be sliced, and used for topping.

Sour cream: Sour cream is a dairy product that is smooth and has a cooling effect on spicy foods. 

Cilantro: Cilantro is an earthy herb that adds freshness to dishes, and used for topping dishes such as tacos, nachos, and soups.

Lime: A citrus fruit that is tart, acidic with a hint of sweetness. This is used to squeeze on top of tacos to add a zing.

Instructions

Combine rub ingredients, add oil, and mix to form a rub.

Using a pastry brush or your hands, cover the chicken with rub, massaging it under the skin if possible. Cover and marinate for an hour up to overnight.

Smoke or grill chicken until temperature reads at least 165°.

Leave the heat on when removing the chicken, and place tortillas on grates, turning once to heat both sides, about 1-2 minutes.

When cool enough to handle, shred chicken meat from bones.

Make tacos by adding chicken to tortillas with slaw and add toppings.

Storage

To Store: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3  days.

To Reheat: Rewarm chicken in the microwave or in the air fryer with a splash of chicken stock or water to keep it from drying out. Add a splash or two of pineapple juice to the slaw and stir to freshen it up.

To Freeze: Place leftovers in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

Jerk chicken tacos on a wooden plate with radishes.

FAQ

What can I do if the Jerk seasoning begins to burn my mouth?

If you find that you like your jerk sauce hot and the burning becomes uncomfortable, don’t drink water. Water will only make it worse because it can’t break down capsaicin molecules; it just moves them around so it may actually make it worse. Drink something acidic, like orange juice or lemonade, which will neutralize the capsaicin. A glass of milk will also work, as will sour cream because high fat dairy can help break down the capsaicin molecules.

Can I substitute plant based meat for the chicken?

Yes! You can substitute plant based chicken, beef or tofu for the chicken.

What are the advantages of making my own jerk seasoning?

If you make your own, you can adjust the seasoning to your taste, as well as how much salt is added. Store bought seasoning mixes are full of salt and unwanted preservatives. Another advantage is you’ll get much more seasoning for your money, which is always a very good thing.

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This article originally appeared on Pink When.

Post Written by Shea Goldstein

Dixie Chik Cooks

Shea is the writer and photographer behind Dixie Chik Cooks, a food blog that started as a personal recipe journal. Shea is a recipe developer, freelance writer, and food photographer. She has been published in Parade Food, Redbook Magazine and Today Food. A jalapeno lover who has a passion for all things food, Shea is a Southern Belle who’s thinking about what’s for dinner while eating lunch.

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Jerk-Chicken-2

Jerk Chicken Tacos

  • Author: Shea Goldstein
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Marinating Time: 12 hours
  • Cook Time: 3 hours
  • Total Time: 15 hours 20 minutes
  • Yield: 12 tacos 1x
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Ingredients

Units Scale

Chicken

  • 3 pounds bone-in chicken breasts and thighs
  • 2 Tablespoon allspice
  • 1 Tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 Tablespoon thyme
  • 1 Teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 Teaspoon clove
  • 2 Teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 Teaspoon paprika
  • 1 Tablespoon sea salt coarse
  • 2 Tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon dried Scotch Bonnet pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Pineapple Slaw

  • 1 cup fresh pineapple chopped (or 1/2 of 15 oz. can diced pineapple, drained)
  • 1 bag angel hair slaw
  • 1 cup purple cabbage chopped fine (NOT radicchio)
  • 1/2 cup mayo*
  • 1 Teaspoon sea salt coarse
  • 1 Teaspoon ground pepper coarse

Tacos

  • 12 white corn tortillas taco size
  • Queso fresco or Manchego grated
  • Radishes sliced
  • Avocado
  • Sour cream
  • Cilantro
  • Lime


Instructions


Notes

  • Instead of dried scotch bonnet pepper, you can also use 1 fresh pepper cored and chopped.
  • You may need more mayo than this, adjust to taste.

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