Though “jerk” is a term of obscure origins, some say it came from the Spanish “charque,” the same word that gave rise to the gas station snack called “jerky,” while others claim it refers to the act of jerking meat off the roasting spit. Either way, jerk originated on the island of Jamaica, where it descended from a cooking technique developed by aboriginal Arawaks. They dug a pit, filled it with smoldering pimento wood, and used it to roast wild boar on spits. Pimento, which bears no relation to the sweet pepper of the same name, is also the source of allspice, a flavoring indigenous to Jamaica.
That allspice is also a key component of jerk seasoning, which may be a powder, paste, or marinade. Successive generations of Jamaicans have cooked by this method. First came the Maroons, enslaved plantation workers who escaped to form their own communities, carrying on the jerking tradition. Eventually, as wild boar became scarce, domesticated pigs were substituted, and that’s what you still get at places like Boston Bay on the island’s north shore, the spiritual home of jerk. Eventually, the pit was replaced by 60-gallon oil drums, split and hinged, still in use today.
When jerk came to Brooklyn with Jamaican immigrants, probably in the 1960s, chicken tended to be substituted for pork due to its lower cost and ease of handling. Eventually, chicken became common back in Jamaica, too. The flavoring scheme remained the same, and pretty soon smoking oil-drums were to be seen on sidewalks in front of social clubs, churches, and apartment houses in Flatbush, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and in the Bronx, as well.
It wasn’t long before Jamaican cafes, as well as those of other Caribbean nations, started serving the dish. One prominent purveyor, founded in 1995, was Danny & Pepper’s on Flatbush Avenue. It shared a narrow storefront with a Korean fish market, and mainly sold jerk chicken. A subspecialty was escovitch fish, a recipe inherited from the Spaniards and beloved by Jamaicans, which features a fried fish topped with pickled vegetables. To make it, the proprietors of Danny & Pepper’s just had to reach across the isle and grab a fish.
Eventually, Danny disappeared. In 2005, Gavin Hussey, known as “Peppa,” moved the establishment two blocks north. He’d been born in St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica, the third of a dozen children. His style of jerking was a bit different than some of the other recipes in Flatbush: he washed the chicken first in white vinegar, giving it a tart tang, before rubbing on his personal proprietary mixture of jerk seasonings, as chronicled by Eater in 2013. The new place, dubbed Peppa’s, continued to serve chicken and escovitch fish, along with a linear doughnut called festival, as its primary products.
That tiny restaurant grew into an empire. At one point there were three further restaurants in Brooklyn, of which the East Flatbush and Crown Heights branches are the ones that remain, each run by a different family member. The menus of those places were expanded, so that the slightly ritzier Crown Heights branch just off Nostrand Avenue offered both brown-stew and curried chicken in addition to jerk, as well as oxtail, fish and chips, curry goat, and even a small menu of so-called rasta pastas.
But now a new branch of Peppa’s has appeared, not in Brooklyn but on the Lower East Side. It has its own colorful logo and signage, making me wonder if it was part of the same chain (it is). Another anomaly was a further-expanded menu, with several dishes not available in Brooklyn. Of course, the first thing I checked out was the jerk chicken ($12), which was every bit as good as at the other three branches. In fact, after having eaten at all four, I’d say the recipes were exactly the same.
But the LES storefront also offers jerk pork ($13.50), a real oddity among Jamaican restaurants in town. And don’t fear that it’s made with pork chops or some other cuts easy to acquire and handle. The serving of jerk pork a friend and I shared featured big hunks of meat, fat, and skin, the latter a bit rubbery. But the fat absorbed lots of smoke, and I’d say the jerk pork was slightly smokier than the jerk chicken.
Not only is escovitch fish still part of the new Peppa’s menu, it now extends to three species: porgy, red snapper, and kingfish. I naturally went for the kingfish ($13) for its dense and oily quality — which made it an especially good vehicle for the pickled onions, carrots, and peppers, creating a sort of cold salad. Solid performance from the new Peppa’s here.
While the menu listed pepper shrimp, the woman at the counter told me it was sold out. This is a quintessential beach snack in Jamaica, distributed by strolling vendors from baskets, consisting of small shrimp that have been boiled and then pickled, shell and all. Pop them in your mouth and chew. Instead, she offered me sauteed shrimp (eight for $13), which featured cleaned shrimp, tails attached, in a shimmering and gingery brown sauce with a bit of heat. This dish is listed on the “swimmers” menu.
Another newcomer to the Peppa’s menu is fried chicken. Inevitably, there’s a fried chicken sandwich. The elongated cutlet comes on the coco bread normally used to cradle a meat or vegetable patty. The sandwich ($10) is humongous, and comes with a cushion of baby lettuces. While the original Peppa’s offered only two sauces, the list here has expanded to a half dozen, and I had the pineapple jerk sauce put on mine (there’s also mango jerk, sweet chili, and two kinds of barbecue sauce, in addition to the traditional scotch bonnet jerk sauce).
Then there are meal-size salads of impressive freshness, salmon sandwiches, rasta pastas, chicken and waffles, brown stew snapper, curried goat and chicken, and patties, with or without coco bread. Really, one of the most impressive things about Peppa’s is its fidelity to the Jamaican menu — though breakfasts of various porridges and salt cod and ackee are omitted. Beer is available, and if you are a Peppa’s fan — as I have long been — you may want to leave wearing a pink or green baseball cap.