Tesnim Hassan has lived in the Chicago area for about ten years. However, she is originally from Los Angeles.
Back in LA, she grew up in Leimert Park, a diverse neighborhood with immigrants from all over the world. An African-American, Hassan enjoys connections with black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, especially Jamaica. She loves Jamaican culture, music, food and delicious jerk she loves sauces too. Jerk sauce is a mix of savory, sweet and spicy flavors that complement all types of grilled meat.
In Chicago, I befriended Caribbean immigrants, including some Jamaicans. And she found plenty of Jamaican food jerk her restaurant options too.
On his commute, Hassan can easily pass about 30 jerk chicken joints.
“I’m not exaggerating,” she said.
That prompted her to ask Curious City: Why are there so many jerk restaurants in Chicago? I am wondering please.
The answer has several layers. The simple reason: Many Chicagoans love jerk, and its popularity is creating demand for more restaurants. A quick Yelp search showed 218 jerk restaurants in Chicagoland, but that doesn’t include food stands or restaurants that offer jerk options.
Hassan is right. The Jamaican population in the Chicago area is not large.
Recent census data shows that in 2021, about 20,000 Jamaicans lived in the Chicago metropolitan area. This is about the same size as LA but significantly smaller than other metropolitan areas such as New York and Miami. However, despite its relatively small Jamaican population, Chicago’s Jamaicans have had a cultural and social impact on the city. Jamaican cuisine, including jerk, may be the most visible, but it’s not the only one.
Since the turn of the 20th century, immigrants from Jamaica to the United States and Chicago have been influenced in search of affordable wages and new opportunities.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, during World War II, U.S. companies massively recruited thousands of agricultural, domestic and medical workers from the Caribbean, including Jamaica. In the 1950s and her 60s, some of that immigrant was also influenced by Jamaicans seeking higher education in Chicago and other parts of the country. Many went on to earn engineering degrees or take nursing jobs.
Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1962. Soon after, US immigration reforms like the Hart Cellar Act of 1965 opened the door for Caribbean immigrants, many of whom chose Chicago as their home. (The Hart-Seller Act ended years of immigration policies that favored people in northern and western Europe.)
Some experts believe that Chicago’s Jamaicans inspired the local black community.
“Through reggae, through music, through Bob Marley, through Rastafarianism, through food,” said Eric S. McDuffie, associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People’s pride is contagious.”
McDuffie believes leaders like co-founder Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) has played a key role in the empowerment of Black people around the world, including Chicago, and in the United States.
“The Midwest, especially Chicago, was a hot spot for Garveyism in the early 20s,” McDuffie said, adding that Garveyism laid the foundation for many black power movements.
Mark Johnson, also known as Berry, is one proud Jamaican living on Chicago’s South Side. He has been running a food business for his 20 years called Belly Up. He caters during the winter months and sets up a grill by the beach on the South Side during the warmer months. This summer, he plans to set up shop on his 57th Street beach.
“When I came to America, I couldn’t find anything to my palate,” Johnson said. ‘ And that’s when I really started cooking for myself. the way i was raised. ”
He soon began sharing his food with friends and neighbors.
“I gave people samples and everyone went crazy.”
His Jamaican-style dishes include jerk chicken, jerk lamb chops, curried chicken, yellow and white rice, red snapper, and fried plantains.
He starts by making an authentic jerk sauce using fresh herbs like ginger, garlic, pepper seeds, thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and garlic.
And the best cooking secrets, he says, lie in how long the meat is marinated, how fresh the sauce is, and how it’s grilled. In Jamaica, he says, he uses pimento wood, which gives the meat a smoky flavor.
But Belly said there is another important factor. it’s music.
“So music and food go together perfectly,” said Johnson. “Good music, good food, nothing beats it.”