Misunderstanding Chilli: The Case of Jamie Oliver’s Jerk

"Jerk chicken" photo from stu_spivack, flickr (Creative Commons)

Cultural appropriation, once again, finds itself in the discussion thanks to Jamie Oliver’s (ready-made, apparently) “Jerk Rice”.


In England, especially, a bit more respect for the culture and the kitchen of Jamaica was to be hoped for. Jamaica is gladly seen as close thanks to the former empire, Jamaicans served as airmen in WWII, but Jamaica and Jamaicans remain seen as exotic and hardly English, after all.

That discussion is being led already. And heatedly. As always, some – including Jamie Oliver himself – claim it was all just inspiration from another culture and kitchen, others see the worst of profiteering and lack of respect, packaged in exoticism.

An aspect on the edge of hearing, but sounding strongly from the ChiliCult perspective: Once again, a chilli misunderstanding is in play.

So (Not) a Jerk

One of the problematic aspects of the whole story, after all, is the following:

Jamie Oliver apparently created a ready meal that he claims to have a certain “attitude“, thanks to ginger, garlic, and jalapeños… which is laughable in more than one way.

For one, because jalapeños, nice as they are for the beginner in the world of the chile peppers, hardly impart any special “attitude” or flavor.

Worse yet if one knows that Jamaican jerk is made with allspice and Scotch Bonnet peppers!

Scotch Bonnet!

Scotch Bonnet, as a relative of habanero, does have a special flavor, imparts a kick with an attitude.

So, even before one gets to such “details” as the fact that jerk talks of something that’s barbecued, this should disqualify the meal from bearing the label “jerk.”


“Inspiration” is, all too often, code for “I’ll do whatever I want”. Inspiration should still be fine, from wherever and to whatever combination.

Claiming something as inspiration (as Jamie Oliver seems to be doing in his defense) and then promptly misunderstanding it in all its major characteristics, however, expresses a lack of respect, towards a flavor and towards a culture.

I’m sure we can do better – with more respect and better aromas.


[“Jerk chicken” image on top from stu_spivack on flickr]

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