Imagine this familiar Jamaican scene: It’s 2 A.M., and you’re on your way home from a night on the town. You’re hungry, so decide to stop at your neighborhood “pan chicken man.” As you approach, you immediately notice the sweet smell of barbecue smoke mingling with a bouquet of fragrant island spices, like Scotch bonnet pepper, scallion, and thyme. Those first bold bites, deep with the flavor of char from the grill, set your stomach at ease and prepare you for a good night of sleep to come.
As you can tell, we—and so many others—love pan chicken, famously made by enterprising cooks who fashion a grill out of an oil drum by cutting it in half and adding handles, legs, a mesh grill grate, and a chimney to allow smoke to escape. These vendors usually position themselves along popular roadways and accessible areas between the hours of 4 p.m. and 4 a.m., making it easy for drivers to stop and purchase food on-the-go when they are out and about.
Armed with a large Igloo of raw marinated chicken, a chopping knife, tongs, and a cutting board, the vendors stoke the fire in preparation of serving patrons piping hot chicken directly from the grill all night long. Once you place your order, a freshly cooked piece of chicken is removed from the drum pan and chopped into pieces on the cutting board. It is transferred to aluminum foil and doused with ketchup and homemade hot pepper sauce (the latter is optional). Two fresh slices of Jamaican hardo bread are placed on top of the chicken and the foil is closed, wrapping everything inside.
Often misinterpreted to be jerk chicken, especially outside of Jamaica, pan chicken is a completely different dish, and there are some key differentiators that make it so, the absence of pimento wood being the main one. Pimento, an essential part of the flavoring, seasoning, and cooking process for authentic jerk, is not used when cooking pan chicken, which lacks the smoky woody sweetness that pimento imparts.
Pan chicken is still, however, highly flavorful, with a hint of smoke and a nice char from the coal drum. Additionally, pan chicken is not spicy; it is highly seasoned but lacks the mouth-burning Scotch bonnet heat of jerk. Unfortunately, most people who visit Jamaica do not realize that pan chicken and jerk chicken are two completely different things, and thus never end up sampling this delightful late-night roadside snack. For those who are in the know, though, pan chicken vendors are hard to miss, populating every locale, town, city, and parish. It should be noted that there is no fixed recipe for pan chicken, and every vendor creates their own signature version and unique cooking style.
Every self respecting Jamaican has their favorite pan chicken vendor. In fact, it is such a popular dish that one of the island’s leading chicken purveyors hosts an annual Pan Chicken Championship, where the best vendors from all across the island gather to compete for the top prize.
This is the ultimate Jamaican fast food—it’s quick, hot, moist, smoky, and well spiced. The only negative thing about pan chicken is that it’s not available all day long. Unless you cook your own, following a recipe like this one.
For this version, we marinate the chicken in an herbal mix of scallions, ginger, garlic, Scotch bonnet pepper, thyme and more, making sure to rub the marinade all over including under the skin, for even better flavor preparation. To make it easier for home cooks to get tender and moist chicken that’s also well browned on the outside, it starts out on the cooler side of the grill, away from the direct intensity of the coals. With the grill’s lid closed and the vents (if your grill has them) open above the chicken, smoky heat wafts over the meat on its way up and out, cooking the chicken through without risk of it burning.
Once cooked through, the chicken takes a final trip over the coals to brown and char it. Don’t be afraid to let it get a bit singed in spots—while you don’t want to burn the chicken, a little bit of char is an important part of pan chicken’s flavor, replicating the taste of those beloved roadside spots.
In a blender or food processor, combine scallions, ginger, garlic, Scotch bonnet, oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, thyme, cane vinegar, salt, paprika, turmeric, and black pepper and pulse, scraping down sides as necessary, until a paste forms.
Using kitchen shears or a heavy-duty knife, divide chicken into 4 skin-on, bone-in parts (2 breast halves with wings attached and 2 legs). Rub chicken all over with lime, making sure to get inside cavity and under skin, then rub chicken with salt and pepper in the same manner.
Using your hands, massage 1/2 cup (120ml) marinade liberally all over chicken, making sure to get marinade under skin, under the wings, and all over meat; reserve remaining marinade for later use (see notes). Transfer chicken to a rimmed baking sheet or large, heavy-duty zipper-lock bag. Cover chicken or seal bag, pressing out air, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place. Alternatively, turn half the burners on a gas grill to high, leaving the other half off. Cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Place chicken, skin side up, on cooler side of grill, with legs facing toward hotter side. Cover grill with vents on lid open and aligned over chicken. Open bottom vents of grill if using a charcoal grill. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of breast registers 120°F (50°C). Carefully flip chicken and place on hotter side of grill, skin side down, with breasts pointed toward cooler side. If using a gas grill, reduce heat to medium-low. Press down firmly with a wide, stiff spatula to ensure good contact between bird and grill grates. Cover and cook until skin is crisp and lightly charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of breast registers 150°F (66°C), about 10 minutes longer. If chicken threatens to burn before temperature is achieved, carefully slide to cooler side of grill, cover, and continue to cook until done. Do not leave the lid off for longer than it takes to check temperature.
Transfer chicken to a cutting board and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Carve and serve with ketchup, pepper sauce, and Jamaican hardo bread.
Blender or food processor, charcoal or gas grill
The extra marinade can be transferred to a small freezer bag; press out air as you seal the bag, then freeze for up to 3 months.