I began, as any journalist does, with research. I read exhaustively both cookbooks and travel books. I queried colleagues with expertise in the various countries I planned to visit. I consulted with tourism bureaus and cultural attachés. I spoke with food and cookware importers, travel agents, anthropologists, foreigners I met here and abroad-anyone who could shed insight into the grilling of a particular country.
My informants included fellow journalists, university professors, business travelers, diplomats, and flight attendants. Some of my best information came from taxi drivers. (Of all professions, cabbies seem to possess the most unerring knowledge of who serves the best barbecue.) I planned as much as I could, then I made sure I was in the right place to capitalize on chance.
I speak French and Spanish and a smattering of Italian, Portuguese, and German (the latter is useful in Turkey), so in countries where these languages are spoken, I was able to work on my own. In countries where I didn’t speak the language, I found guides or interpreters. And of course I developed my own sign language:
"I" (point to me)
"write" (move my fingers to mime writing)
"about food" (raise an imaginary fork or chopsticks to my lips or rub my belly)
"I would like to" (again point to me)
"watch" (point to my eye)
"you cook." (mime the act of grilling, mixing, chopping, or stir-frying)
I took with me one of my previous cookbooks. I would show the recipes and point to the photograph of me on the back cover.
I feared my efforts would be met with suspicion, secrecy, and rejection, but almost everywhere I went I encountered openness, warmth, and welcome. Virtually all of the grill jockeys I interviewed were not only willing but happy to share their knowledge. On many occasions, I was invited into the kitchen. I tried my hand at molding kofta meat onto skewers, fanning the coals, or slapping naan on the inside walls of a blazing tandoor. My efforts generally evoked peals of good-natured laughter.
I found myself in many places not frequented by most travelers, having experiences that ranged from fascinating to hair-raising. In Mexico I nibbled cactus worms and crickets as a prelude to barbecue. (The latter tasted like potato chips with legs.) In Uruguay I sampled testicles, tripe, intestines, kidneys, and blood sausage. In Bali I paid a 6 a.m. visit to the local babi guli (roast pork) man, who rewarded my punctuality by letting me help him slaughter a suckling pig. In Bangkok I was the guest of honor at an Isarn (northeastern Thai) restaurant whose fly-filled kitchen overlooked a stagnant canal. (I forced myself to eat with the enthusiasm appropriate to a guest of honor, and no one was more surprised than I when I didn’t get sick.
Some of the world’s best barbecue was off limits because of political turmoil. I would have liked to have visited Afganistan, Iraq, Iran, and some of the more turbulent former Soviet republics. Instead, I found experts and restaurants specializing in those cuisines in this country.
Barbecue buffs have a reputation for being a secretive bunch (at least in the United States), but virtually everywhere I traveled on the barbecue trail, cooks were happy to share their recipes and expertise. Some scrawled recipes for me, to be translated back at my hotel. Others drew pictures in my notebook to explain where a particular piece of meat came from or how to execute a particular cut. When possible, I credit the extraordinary grill jockeys I met by name (or at least by the name of their establishment).
Recipes are the heart of any cookbook, of course. In this one you’ll find more than 500, covering everything from Brazilian churrasco to Balinese shrimp satés to Memphis-style ribs. The essays describing some of my experiences are intended for the traveler (both active and armchair), as well as the cook.
My three years on the barbecue trail passed in what seems like the blink of any eye.
As I sit here writing these words, I picture all the remarkable places I’ve been, the kind, generous people I’ve met, and the extraordinary food I’ve been lucky enough to sample. And yet I can’t help but feel there’s so much more I would have liked to have accomplished. The world of barbecue is so vast and complex, any survey is bound to have blind spots. I honestly believe I could spend the rest of my life writing about barbecuing and grilling and still find new things to discover.
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