Omar McKay’s Passion for Jerk

Omar McKay will not spill the beans on the components of his traditional jerk seasoning. He’ll only say that there are about 18 herbs and spices in the potent rub he makes daily at Irie Jamaican Kitchen on East 185th Street in Euclid.

Intense heat is the hallmark of jerk cooking. It’s made with scotch bonnet peppers, which bring about a sharp, lingering mouth burn similar to that of a habanero. On the Scoville Scale, a widely accepted pepper heat index, scotch bonnets rank more than 20 times hotter than a jalapeno. Jerk also contains garlic, thyme, cinnamon, allspice, and usually some proprietary secret ingredients of the person making it.

Jerk also refers to the traditional preparation of poking holes in the meat before slathering on the thick layer of flavorful, peppery coating prior to grilling or roasting. Jerk’s influences are largely African and Peruvian, and the flavor profile we know today evolved over a thousand years. Jerking chicken, pork, and shrimp are most common, but you can also jerk vegetables.

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“Everybody thinks it’s all about hot, hot, hot . . . but there are different levels to the heat. It’s about flavor, not just spice,” Omar says. “My jerk is fresh, clean, and less salty than a pre-made mix.” The peppers are roasted and then puréed with his complex blend of herbs and spices.

Omar’s boneless jerk chicken is aromatic and spicy with a lasting tingle on the tongue and noticeable warmth in the throat, but it’s not so hot that it hurts. Omar has adjusted his cooking to more timid palates. The same dishes prepared at a traditional Jamaican jerk hut would, predictably, be more jarring.

Served up box-food style, Irie’s jerk specialties come with traditional sides of rice and peas (red beans), a braised turmeric cabbage, and sweet, roasted plantains to balance out the spice. Ask for an extra drizzle of jerk sauce, and add a side of housemade cornbread, mango salsa, or a fruity Jamaican D&G soda to offset the extra heat.

Recognizing an underserved community and a business opportunity, Omar opened Irie Jamaican Kitchen two years ago. Irie is Jamaican for “good.” The sunlit corner spot has a brisk take-out business, though a few high-top seats line a window-facing counter. Omar also prepares other Jamaican specialties like oxtail in brown sauce and curry dishes. He created a dish called Jahpotle, a layered rice bowl with jerked meat and toppings—a familiar-looking gateway to a more authentic experience.

Omar learned to cook alongside his mother and grandmother in Jackson Town, Jamaica, where, he explains, everybody has a distinct style and taste. “Jerk is the big thing there. Everyone wants to be the best jerk guy.”

Thanks to a growing number of jerk enthusiasts, Omar is well on his way to earning that distinction, at least locally. He’s purchased some space down the street, where he plans to open Irie Village, with a central kitchen and butcher shop. A second location in Old Brooklyn is in the works.

Warm up at Irie Jamaican Kitchen, 621 E. 185th Street. Find current menu and information on future locations at IrieJaKitchen.com.