Grilling is done, in some form or other, in virtually every country in the world. In some regions, it’s a marginal technique-something you do outdoors, for example, when you lack access to a proper kitchen. Or something a low-wage street vendor does, lacking the knowledge or material resources to practice a more sophisticated style of cooking.
In other countries, grilling lies at the core of the culture’s culinary identity. The grills may range from the shoeboxnsize braziers used in Southeast Asia to the behemoth fire pits found in South America and the American South. The preparations may be as simple as Argentina’s bife de lomo (grilled tenderloin seasoned only with salt) or as complex as Vietnam’s bo bun (thinly sliced, lemongrass-marinated beef eaten with noodles, chiles, crisp vegetables, aromatic herbs, and rice paper.)
In researching my world tour of grilling and barbecue, I discovered that there is a barbecue belt that encircles the globe. Or more specifically, that there are six great barbecue zones. The United States and Mexico and the Caribbean comprises the first. Standing alone as the second is South America. On the other side of the Atlantic, the barbecue zone stretches from the Mediterranean Basin to the Middle East (number three) and from Arab North Africa to South Africa via the continent’s western coast (number four).
The largest contiguous barbecue zone starts in Turkey and runs east through the Caucasus Mountains, Central Asia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (number five). In the thirteenth century, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, spread their love of grilled meats as far west as Turkey. The Arab world refined the idea, then shipped it back via the Mogul rulers to the Indian subcontinent and possibly beyond to Indonesia.
The last great barbecue zone follows the eastern rim of the Pacific, stretching from Australia and Indonesia to Korea. Along the way, some of the world’s most interesting grilling can be found in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Macao, and Japan.
Thus, most of the world’s grilling take place in the tropics, which you’d expect, given the proclivity of most humans in hot climates to cook outdoors. (Furthermore, most of the world’s spices grow in the tropics, which adds interest to the marinades and condiments traditionally associated with grilling.) But a great deal of remarkable live-fire cooking lies squarely outside the tropics: Consider Japan, Argentina, and our own United States.
What’s almost as interesting as where people do live-fire cooking is where they don’t. Grilling has never played much of a role in two of the world’s gastronomic superpowers: northern Europe and China. And although grilling is found in Africa, more often than not charcoal fires are used to heat stew pots and frying pans, not to cook the meats directly.
My first year on the barbecue trail, I focused my efforts in my own hemisphere. My first stop was the Jamaican town Boston Beach, birthplace of jerk. I island hopped my way across the Caribbean, stopping for French West Indian boucanée (chicken smoked over sugarcane), Trinidadian choka (spiced, grilled vegetables), lechon asado (Hispanic roast pig). The North American concept of barbecue (the intense spicing and slow smoky grilling) originated in the Caribbean, and the tradition remains alive and flourishing.
Next I headed for South America, home to some of the world’s most heroic grilling. I dined in stylish churrascarias in Rio de Janeiro, at the homey grill stalls of Montevideo’s Mercado del Puerto, and at landmark steak houses in Buenos Aires. I watched whole sides of beef being roasted in front of a campfire on an estancia (ranch) in the Pampas. South American grilling, I learned, represents one end of the barbecue spectrum, emphasizing simplicity and directness of flavor. Argentinians don’t even bother with marinades for most meats: the seasonings are limited to sea salt and the perfume of wood smoke.
The second year, I turned my attention to Asia. I visited Indonesia, birthplace of the saté and home to what is probably the world’s single largest repertoire of grilled dishes. I sampled dozens of different types of satés-a small fraction of what’s actually eaten in Indonesia. I learned that small is beautiful: Indonesian satés are cooked on grills the size of a shoebox and served on skewers as slender as broom straws.
Indonesia and my next destination, Singapore and Malaysia, possess some of the world’s most complex marinades and spice mixtures. On the island of Penang in northern Malaysia, I watched grill jockeys pound ginger, chiles, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, and coconut milk into fragrant paste for seasoning grilled meats and seafood. I scorched my tongue on the fiery achars (pickles) and sambals (relishes) that accompany grilled fare in Southeast Asia. This complex seasoning of grilled meats stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the simple grilled meats of South America.
One common complaint about barbecue in the West is that it’s so, well, relentlessly carnivorous. In Thailand and Vietnam I found the perfect model for healthy barbecue: the pairing of small portions of grilled meats with large amounts of vegetables, rice, and noodles. The Thai often eat barbecued food wrapped in lettuce leaves (a practice echoed by Koreans), while in Vietnam the wrapping is done in crêpe-like sheets of rice paper. Fish saucenbased dipping sauces, toasted peanuts, sliced chiles, and fragrant basil and mint sprigs are often combined with grilled meats in a single, explosively flavorful bite.
As I moved north, the fish sauce and coconut milk marinades gave way to soy sauce and five-spice powder mixtures in Hong Kong and Macao and to sweet sesame marinades in Korea. In Japan (land of my birth, by the way), I sat elbow to elbow with Japanese businessmen in crowded Tokyo yakitori parlors, enjoying sweet-salty teriyaki and pungent barbecue sauces made from miso (cultured soybean paste) and umeboshi (pickled plums). I feasted on fabled Kobe beef and on ingredients I never knew you could grill, like okra and ginkgo nuts. Here, too, I learned that small is beautiful and that barbecue could be as subtle as haiku.
The third year, I focused my research on the Near East and the Mediterranean Basin. Turkish cooks introduced me to an astonishing array of kebabs and grilled vegetables. In Morocco I discovered mechouie (pit-roasted lamb), not to mention French-style brochettes flavored with pungent North African spices. In France I experienced the heady pleasures of grilling over grapevines. (One night, I drove 400 miles to taste grilled escargots in a tiny village near Perpignon.) Italy, Spain, and Portugal impressed me with their wealth of simply grilled seafoods and vegetables.
Along the way, I filled in my travels: Mexico for its barbacoas and carne asado India for its extraordinary tandoori and grilled breads Israel for its shwarma, kofta, and grilled foie gras. I crisscrossed the United Stated, savoring pulled pork in the Carolinas, brisket in Texas, and ribs in Kansas City and Memphis.
All told, I traveled more than 150,000 miles to 25 countries on 5 continents.
Don’t ask me what my favorite barbecue is. It would be a little like asking the parents of a large family to name their favorite child.
I loved the plate-burying abundance of an Argentinian steak as much as the delicacy of Japanese yakitori. I loved the straightforwardness of Italian bistecca alla fiorentina as much as the complex layering of flavor characteristic of Indian tandoori. I loved the eat-with-your-fingers informality of North American barbecue and the chic of a Brazilian churrascaria. I loved the Asian-style grilling, with its modest portions of grilled meats in relation to the generous serving of starches and vegetables. But I wouldn’t snub my nose at a thick, juicy hamburger made from freshly ground sirloin charred over blazing hickory or mesquite.
Come to think of it, during three long years on the barbecue trail, there wasn’t a single meal I didn’t enjoy. So, as they say in Spanish, buen provecho in Vietnamese, chuc qui ban an ngon in Hindi, aap kha lijiya in Japanese, itadakimasu in Arabic, bessahaa in Hebrew, b’teavon in Korean, jharr chop su se yo in French, bon appétit in Chinese, man man chi. In other words, dig in!
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