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Barbecue around the world

Barbecue traditions from around the world

by Helen Graves 13 July 2018

What is it about barbecue that has us so obsessed? Helen Graves takes a look at barbecue history, and delves into a few barbecue traditions from around the world.

The world’s most ancient form of cooking has become a trend, with top restaurateurs basing menus around it and home enthusiasts shelling out top dollar for ceramic smokers and grills. I’ve always been a barbecue enthusiast, and now, as the proud owner of four barbecues and editor of Pit – a magazine about live fire cooking – I definitely fall into the category of ‘obsessed'.

So what is it that makes barbecue such an appealing cooking method? Sure, we all like to cook outdoors when the sun is shining but it’s much more than that. There’s the practical appeal, of course, like the fact that it’s accessible (even the worst cooks or those without fancy equipment can have a go), and it’s sociable (people tend to gather around a grill and may even make a pass at the tongs).

There are the more romantic draws, like the crackle of wood as it starts to smoke and the swirling dance of golden sparks floating into a dusky sky. Ultimately, though, it’s about flavour. Smoke leaves its mark on the food and this, together with the caramelisation of fats and sugars on the grill, well, it’s pretty irresistible as a package.

All around the world right now, people are cooking over fire; whether it’s nyama choma (barbecued goat) on the streets of East Africa, spicy peri peri chicken in a Portuguese restaurant, or aubergines smoking on a grill in Israel, hissing and blackening to the point of delicious collapse. There’s a whole world of barbecue out there, so why not start exploring it, right in your own back garden.

1. Chicken yakitori

Yakitori is the quintessential Japanese barbecue dish, in which chickens are meticulously butchered into their component parts and precisely arranged in different ways on small bamboo, wood or steel skewers.

The chicken must be grilled over charcoal (even a specialist type of charcoal called Binchōtan is used) and it is usually served with a ‘tare’ or soy basting sauce, into which the meat is also dipped as it is being cooked.

A yakitori chef is highly respected in Japan (the Japanese do an excellent job of becoming highly specialised in the kitchen) but it’s okay, you can have a go at home with very pleasing results. It’s worth butchering the chicken yourself because you get to try all the different cuts, and pretend you’re a yakitori master at the same time. However, chicken thighs and breasts are easier and faster.

2. Moo ping

Thai street food is some of the best in the world and these dinky pork skewers are a classic dish. Moo ping is served in the many street food/night markets; thousands of tiny skewers are flipped over hot coals, their scent rising into the evening air. Irresistible!

There are many different recipes for moo ping but the coconut milk is non-negotiable, as it tenderises the meat and lends its sweet fragrance. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of sugar, this is essential for caramelising the pork on the grill and the sweet/salty balance is what makes these skewers shine. Close your eyes and imagine you’re in Bangkok.

3. Pork souvlaki

I once spent a wonderful day in Athens grazing on souvlaki, and learning that people have strong opinions on this traditional form of Greek barbecue regarding the correct accompaniments and style of serving. The most common meat to use is pork although lamb, chicken or beef are also used. It’s important to get the flavours right too, with lots of fresh lemon and oregano; the end result should be bright, fresh and filling.

Traditional souvlaki in Greece tend to be served with the meat alongside the accompaniments including fried potatoes and tzatziki, although modern vendors will serve everything in one compact wrap. My Greek friend was somewhat conflicted about the modern trend for adding chips but I say, why not?

4. Suya

Suya is a traditional method of West African barbecue originating from the people of the Hausa tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. It is a dish of grilled beef (or other meats) which are rubbed with a spice mixture called yaji, thought to have powerful, invigorating properties.

There are many different combinations of spices which can make up a yaji, but do try to find the grains of Selim, or uda pods, which are available online or in African grocery shops. It’s also important to serve some of the yaji alongside the finished skewers, with sliced tomatoes and onions.

5. Char siu pork

This is a classic Chinese barbecue dish of grilled pork with a sweet, lacquered exterior, and one of the world’s most satisfying comfort foods. This, with a mound of fluffy steamed rice and some simply cooked Chinese greens such as choi sum or pak choi is heaven and a cure for many ills, including hangovers and crappy Mondays.

It’s often cooked in the oven but with some careful manoeuvring can be done on the barbecue at home with great results – just make sure you use long skewers which cover the diameter of your grill.

If you enjoy chilli heat, try adding a tablespoon of chilli flakes to the marinade as they will work well with the sweetness.

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