There are few things as summery as barbecue. As the weather warms, the grass is high and smells sweet, and the long days beg us to remain outdoors as much as possible. This means bringing our cooking outdoors with us. The easiest way to do so is also man’s most primal. Make a fire. Suspend food above the fire. Consume. It doesn’t get any more Old School than that.
But “barbecue” can have multiple meanings. In the US, if it is used as a verb, it usually refers to cooking on a gas or coal-fired grill, with the Weber kettle grill coming to mind (or, if you’re fancy, the Big Green Egg). But if it’s a noun, as in “I’m going to eat some barbecue,” it almost always describes a very specific, very American type of cooking: slowly smoked meat, suspended off-set from the heat source, enriched by the smoke from wood chips infusing and softening it for as much as 18 hours (hello Texas brisket!).
This is certainly my favorite type of food. I got curious about barbecue traditions in other countries. Meat + fire (+ optional smoke) is our equation.
It’s fitting to start with the etymological origin of the word “barbecue,” from the Taino people of the Caribbean islands, who occupied places like Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba until the Spanish displaced them. Their tradition was to roast meat, usually whole sheep or pig, slowly, over an open fire, though they also would bury meat in a pit lined with maguey leaves (American aloe) and cover it with ash, burying it until cooked tender.
South African Braai
The Afrikaans word for “roast,” this generally describes a grilled meat party, South African-style. Like a “potluck party,” the “bring and braai” is a popular gathering in which guests bring something to throw on the grill, and everyone shares. Bringing alcohol as well results in a “chop ‘n’ dop.”
The burger of the Balkans, the most ubiquitous and popular fast food, is strangely almost unheard-of in the West. Pronounced “chevap-cheechee,” these are oblong meatballs, ground meat rolled into “meat fingers” (to choose a thoroughly unappetizing translation I once came across) grilled over coals and usually eaten with lepinje (pita-liked bread), kajmak (a butter-like cheese) and raw onions.
Korean Bool kogi
Serving-sized grills are placed on your table to fire up thin beef short ribs that have sat for hours in a quintessentially Korean marinade that combines spicy, sweet and garlicky: soy sauce, Asian pair, sugar, garlic, sesame oil and pepper.
Cowboys out wrangling in the expanses of Patagonia would strap oversized cuts of meat (like, half a lamb) on t-shaped spits that they would raise vertically around a campfire, to be licked by flames and smoke for hours, while they set about their work. The result looks like a scene from a medieval altarpiece, but it sure tastes good. Especially accompanied by the national sauce, chimichurri.
The national dish of the Philippines is a roasted suckling pig, prepared whole (minus entrails) in a hole lined with coals, over which it is slowly rotated until cooked through, with crisp crackling skin. Not for the faint-hearted or the vegetarian, but heavenly for all others.
Mongolian Grill Hot Iron
One of the most popular dishes at “Chinese” restaurants (in the broadest sense of the cuisine) are Mongolian-style barbecue dishes served on a burning-hot flat iron plate, so the ingredients finish cooking at your table.
A Tandoor is a clay oven that is buried in a fire pit or other heating source. The shape of the oven, egg-like, is conducive to the circulation of heat and is a variation on another ancient traditional barbecue shape, the kamado. The sides of the oven can be used to cook flatbreads, like naan.
Kamado simply means a charcoal of wood-fueled stove, but it is more specifically a “place for the cauldron,” as in the spot where heat is produced over which you suspend your cooking vessel. A portable clay kamado, mushikamado, was spotted by Americans after World War Two and adopted and adapted — the most popular version became the storied firm of excellent, odd-looking, and extremely pricy kamado-style ovens called the Big Green Egg. As with a Tandoor, the egg shape helps distribute heat, but the real key is that the oven is made of ceramic, which retains heat beautifully, for hours on a modest portion of charcoal. This is an oven, not strictly a grill or a smoker, but it can be used as any of the above, and is therefore wonderfully versatile.
Varieties of meat are roasted on a spit and served tableside on vertical skewers, from which the waiter carves off pieces, often in all-you-can-eat quantities.
We began this article with a reference to low-and-slow smoked American barbecue. But that takes a lot of skill, patience, and some equipment. What just about every American does on summer weekends is a basic but classic arrangement of burgers and hot dogs on a backyard kettle grill, or some other simple equivalent of a metal mesh suspended over coals. Beer in hand, this requires little skill to do quite well. The even more American version is “tailgating,” in which you load picnic supplies in the back of your car (which I assume is a pickup truck, right?). Arriving several hours prior to a sporting event (which I assume is your local college football team, right?), you set up your grill, park next to a few buddies, and have a feast of beer and seared meat before heading into the stadium. “Go Fill-in-the-Blank-Team!".
Too many countries feature simple marinated meat on a skewer, grilled over coals, so we’ll go with just one exemplar, Japanese yakitori. Traditionally chicken is lacquered in tare sweet and salty sauce (thick soy with dashi, vinegar, and various other variable ingredients). Addictive eating in vast quantities, preferably accompanied by cold beer. Other varieties of skewered, grilled meats include Thai satay, Georgian shashlik, Croatian ražnići, Lebanese shish taouk.
An ancient method of barbecuing, still part of a party tradition in Hawaii (preferably with tiki torches and “Hawaiian” print shirts). Wrap a pig, bury it in a sand pit, cover it with hot ash. Unbury when it’s dinner time. While an entire article could (and probably should) be dedicated to “Around the World in Pigs on Skewers,” since there are so many variants, let Hawaii’s version suffice for now.
Throughout the Levant you can find minor variations on the classic rotating meat on a skewer, variously called shawarma, kebab, gyros or souvlaki (in Greece), and with many other variations. The meat is heated as it rotates, the fat dripping down the length of the hefty skewer, basting as it does. The cheap versions, while still tasty, tend to use pressed meat: Leftover bits, hot dog-style, that are pressed into loafs, then shaved off to add to your pita sandwich. The best versions are layered marinated meat.
Living in Europe, it’s hard to find proper barbecue. You can get decent stuff, smoked for, say, two hours, to give a hint of smokiness. But the real deal takes time and patience and love. This is why I was thrilled to see the opening, in February, of the Slovenian Barbecue Association, which even offers courses taught by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. If you spot delicious-smelling smoke on the horizon, that’ll probably be me. If the smoke doesn’t smell delicious, or is in over-abundance, please call the fire department.