Just about every country in the world has its own tradition for cooking over fire – some of them very famous, from the churrasco of Brazil, to the braai of South Africa, to Japan’s teppanyaki, and our very own democracy sausage sizzle!
In many languages the word ‘barbecue’ doesn’t refer to the cooking technique or the resulting food, but the whole joyful ‘event’ of gathering together to cook over fire. It’s the vibe!
There are a lot of places claiming to be the ‘barbecue capital of the world’, but even within the same country barbecuing can mean different things to different people. In America a barbecue can be cooking burgers in the garden, or slow-roasting a whole hog over a fire pit, depending on whether you’re from the northern or southern states.
The irresistible umami combination of meat and heat is one of the oldest food rituals in the world. And every country thinks their way of barbecuing is best. Someone might be right!
Lechón is so delicious that it's been the Philippines' national dish for 130 years, although it originated in Spain. A whole pig is slowly spit-roasted over a charcoal pit until the skin is brick-red, crisp and salty. Different areas have their own recipes: the pig might be rubbed with coconut water, milk or soy sauce and stuffed with salt, lemongrass, leeks and garlic. Lechón takes all afternoon to cook, so it’s usually a special occasion dish.
Yakitori, hibachi and teppanyaki – Japan might well be in a good position to claim the title of ‘barbecue capital’. Yakitori is a popular traditional street food – bamboo skewers are loaded up with chicken and grilled over smokeless white charcoal. Teppanyaki – from teppan for iron plate and yaki for grilled – is the classic technique of cooking, usually at the table by the diners themselves, or by chefs who work in front of them. In traditional Japanese restaurants, each table has its own iron plate in the centre. The first American teppanyaki restauarant was opened in New York in 1964 by a young Japanese wrestler – and the craze quickly spread across the country.
China? Barbecues? Yes, of course. In just about every major city of the world you’ll find authentic Cantonese barbecue shops, selling siew yuk (roast pork), char siew (barbecue pork), roast duck and sucking pig. In northern China millions of people eat Xinjiang cumin lamb skewers at tables in the streets on summer evenings.
Char siew literally translates as ‘fork roast’ and takes its name from the traditional cooking technique. Pork is rubbed and marinated in ingredients such as soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine, star anise, five-spice powder, honey, fermented bean curd and other seasonings, skewered on long forks and cooked over an open fire. The fire caramelises the sugars in that marinade.
Barbecuing is a way of life in Korea, with a full array of grilled meat and fish dishes known as gui and served with rice and small side dishes called banchan. The most famous Korean barbecue dish is bulgogi, which literally means ‘fire meat’. Thinly sliced beef is marinated with sesame oil, spring onions and soy sauce, then grilled.
Korean barbecuing has a whole set of rules and customs to be followed. Every table in a traditional restaurant has a hole in the middle where a grill is placed over charcoal or gas. The ingredients are brought to the table raw and sliced, ready to cook. The customers choose their ingredients and cook the dish themselves. The meat might be deliciously marinated, as in bulgogi and galbi beef, or plain and unseasoned. Fresh whole lettuce leaves are often used for wrapping the cooked meat and banchan.
If you’ve ever been to a South African braai, you’ll have experienced an amazing homage to meat – from beef, chicken and lamb to ostrich and springbok, sosaties (huge meat skewers) and thick boerewors sausages. The meat is dry-rubbed with a mix of traditional spices, then cooked, usually on a breath-taking scale, over a wood-burning braaistand grill, and scattered with braai sout, a spiced barbecue salt. Then it’s all served up with pap, a corn-based porridge rather like polenta or American grits.
Braai is an event as much as a dish, and the word is a noun and a verb – you can braai a sausage and enjoy a braai with friends. But there are rules: it isn’t a braai without fire, so don’t light up a gas barbie and try to pretend it’s a braai!
While we might think of burger cook-outs in the family garden, in the US ‘barbecue’ generally means the serious cooking rivalry of the southern states. For an American, a barbecue needs three things: wood smoke, meat and barbecue sauce – and that sauce varies between highly competitive regions. There are four famous cuisines to be enjoyed when you take your American barbecue road trip: the pulled pork of the Carolinas, the pork ribs of Memphis, the mixed meats with thick molasses sauces and fries of Kansas City, and the Texas barbecue. Sauces are often addictively sweet and the flavour is cranked up through that wood smoke.
And always remember, McDonald’s started as a barbecue drive-in: McDonald’s Bar-B-Que.
We reckon you could do an entire tour of South America, living on nothing but barbecued meats. Perhaps this is the barbecue capital of the world – it certainly is a land of dedicated carnivores. In many places they don’t really bother with cuts of meat – but just throw the whole animal on the grill. Occasionally there will be vegies too – if you’re lucky.
The Argentinean asada (meaning ‘roasted’) is more than just a meal. In Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay it’s a social celebration of outdoor cooking. A huge selection of grilled meats – but mainly the famous Argentinian beef – is cooked on a special brick-built grill called la parrilla. (The traditional Argentinian steakhouse shares the same name.) The fire can be made of charcoal or wood, which is more traditional in country areas.
The meat is brushed with salmuera (brine) during cooking and served with some famously delicious sauces, such as chimichurri and salsa criolla
The Brazilian churrasco might just beat the Argentinian asado in worldwide fame. Juicy chunks of all meat and chicken are threaded onto big skewers and grilled over a wood fire. The tradition comes from the early 1800s when the European immigrant gauchos got together in the evenings around a fire and slowly grilled the meat for their dinner.
Churrascaria restaurants are found all over Brazil; theatrical roaming servers parade around the dining room, carving meat from skewers directly onto your plate. Most of these restaurants are known for quantity rather than quality – they’re fixed price and the theme is definitely ‘all you can eat’. Skewers will keep arriving until you’re literally fit to burst. And, if there’s any room left on your plate, that’ll be filled with French fries or potato salad, chimichurri, fried bananas, black beans and perhaps a fried egg.
So, where did the word ‘barbecue’ come from in the first place? We can probably thank the Spanish. It seems barbacoa is the word they gave to the Caribbean method of cooking a whole sheep over an open fire pit. Both sheep and pit were covered with maguey (agave) leaves, which release steam as they cook and give the meat a tequila-like flavour – we can see why this took off globally! Since then, barbacoa is a term usually associated with Mexico and the ancient technique of cooking meat in underground ovens.
A Mexican barbacoa involves a hole in the ground, lined with rocks and a layer of burning wood, all covered with agave leaves. The meat is placed on the leaves, the hole sealed and it’s left to barbecue overnight until tender enough to melt in the mouth. Popular meats for a barbacoa are lamb, goat and mutton — it’s good to be aware that animal heads are a traditional speciality. The meat is served, very deliciously, on warm corn tortillas with salsa, coriander and a squeeze of lime juice.
Barbecue capital of the world? Who are you giving your vote to? Perhaps a round-the-world tasting trip is needed…