The world of barbecue is big, even while much of the planet remains off-limits—these are some international BBQ styles you can try for a taste of travel in your own backyard.
As one who grew up in a northern American state, most of my life I thought of the word barbecue as a noun, one that necessarily meant a backyard gathering that likely involved a grill. (And almost invariably involved macaroni salad.) The verb form, to barbecue or barbecuing, was invoked less frequently, but most certainly meant the process of cooking something on a grill. As an (age redacted)-year-old who took a serving job in a New York City restaurant devoted to barbecue styles of the American South, I was quickly schooled to understand that both the noun and verb forms had different meanings: barbecue meant meat that was smoked, with perhaps a wide net in the definition to catch its attendant side dishes (for example, macaroni salad). One eats barbecue. Full stop. This could mean pulled pork sandwiches, or beef brisket, or whole smoked hog, or sausages, etc. From what I could tell, “barbecuing” was rare to nonexistent in the lexicon, and just a dumb thing that northerners said that had no relation to REAL barbecue.
While the U.S. is divided in its uses of the term, it begs the question, how does the rest of the world approach barbecue? A little exploration into the etymology shows that the word barbecue itself owes its roots to that great American pantheon of barbecue: Florida. (Pause while all hell breaks loose…) Perhaps not the meme-worthy Florida of late, but rather the early, native Timucua population of the area as well as Arawak people of the Caribbean. The native term barabicu is translated to mean “a framework of sticks set upon posts.” Now what does that structure sound like to you? A grill!
Via European exploration of the Caribbean, the Spanish term barbacoa was born, and from that, we get barbecue. Plenty of other cultures have variations on open-flame cooking, but two things remain constant: meat, and heat. (Out-of-doors and macaroni salad optional, though volume and community are often recurring themes.) Here we zoom in on one barbecue style per continent or region, as a gesture of worldwide solidarity at the genesis of American barbecue season 2020.
East Asia: Korean Barbecue (Gogi-gul)
Japan has its great, grilled street meat yakitori and China has its savory, marinated strips of char siu, but no other place on earth beyond the United States belongs with the word barbecue as much as Korea. Korean barbecue, or gogi-gul, is a process of grilling meat over a charcoal or gas grill in a way that almost nobody else does it: built right into the table top, rendering the weather completely inconsequential to the occasion, and giving rise to the popularity of Korean barbecue restaurants worldwide. Bulgogi, a marinated beef tenderloin, is the most common meat option, and similar to the U.S., side dishes and condiments are huge supporting characters in Korean barbecue.
Related Reading: How to Host a Korean BBQ in Your Own Backyard
Korean Barbecue Indoor Grill Stovetop Plate, $35.99 on Amazon
Even if you can’t cook right in the middle of your kitchen table, this Korean BBQ grill pan brings the fun at least as near as your stove top.
Central Asia: Indian Tandoori
Another one of the most common ways meat and heat come together to create magic is in the form of a clay or metal pot containing a charcoal or wood fire where the meat gets set as close to the flame as possible, as is the case in Indian Tandoori. A cuisine popularized by Muslims, the most common protein for the tandoor is chicken, which is often marinated in spices and yogurt, tenderizing the meat and helping it retain moisture during the extremely high-heat cooking process.
Mediterranean: Turkish Kebab
The Mediterranean diet is often cited as one of the healthiest on earth, so it’s no wonder that its barbecue culture is basically the only one to routinely incorporate vegetables. Turkish shish kebabs, or şiş kepap properly, are skewered chunks of meat, commonly lamb, as well as vegetables, simply cooked on an open grill or mangal.
BearMoo Kabob Skewers, set of 10 for $17.99 on Amazon
Because this summer is about serious grilling and you know you’re ready to graduate beyond the cheap wooden skewers.
Caribbean: Jamaican Jerk
A dry rub or marinade of various spices applied before grilling or smoking is common among many styles of worldwide barbecue, including many traditions in the American South, but perhaps nobody does it quite like they do in Jamaica. Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice create a profile that is at once sharp and rich, with layers of smoky flavor that are aided and abetted by smoke during the slow cooking process. Fun fact: the term jerk shares etymology with that which we call jerky.
Africa: South African Braai
“Braai” is an Afrikaans word that simply means “grilled meat,” but as in the word “barbecue,” the nuance is much richer than that. Grilled meats are indeed the star of the show, especially a flavorful South African sausage known as boerewors, but potluck-style side dishes and salads are also mandatory components. Much like American barbecue, South African braai describes as much the social custom as it does the cooking process or the cooking equipment, and is so important to the culture as to warrant its own holiday: Braai Day on September 24.
Central America: Mexican Barbacoa
Beyond grills, smokers, and tandoor, another way to approach outdoor cooking as an activity or cooking process is to dig yourself a hole. Barbacoa, a process common in Mexico as well as other Central and South American countries, involves wrapping large cuts of meats from sheep, beef, or goat in maguey leaves, then setting them directly in the underground fire pit. While most barbecue methods promote dry-heat cooking, the addition of leaves in barbacoa introduces the idea of steam into the barbecue equation. The succulent meat is then pulled apart and often served as tacos, on a tortilla adorned with onions, cilantro, and lime.
South America: Brazilian Churrasco
The community element of American barbecue traditions has sympathizers in other cultures, especially South African and Australian approaches to the activity, but in Brazil we have a kindred spirit where another important piece of American BBQ culture is concerned: volume. If you’ve ever wholeheartedly taken on a laughably cheap pile of succulent smoked meats at a barbecue joint in the South, then you will appreciate the all-you-can-eat nature of Brazilian Churrasco, which features grilled, skewered meats and served tableside until you beg for mercy.
Oceana: Filipino Lechón
Throughout the Pacific Islands you will find variations of lechón, the Spanish name adopted in the Philippines, for the process of spit-roasting a whole pig over an open flame. Community plays a part here as well, especially since the process is long and labor-intensive; it begs for a party or special occasion. Hawaiian luau and Tahitian hima’a are similar activities that incorporate a whole-cooked pig into a celebration or ceremony.
Some clarification: One, it’s a prawn, not a shrimp. Two: please don’t actually throw anything where open-flame cooking is concerned. Three: it’s a lifestyle, not just a punchline. Try to show some respect, but by all means do carefully place another prawn upon the barbie when attending an Australian barbecue.
Everything Else You Need to Know
Header image courtesy of Chowhound.