Barbecue is often considered a very American phenomenon. And it’s true, Americans do love their barbecue, and they’re willing to engage in heated debates about which state prepares the best meat and which side dishes are appropriate. But various styles of barbecue have stretched far beyond the one country.
“Barbecue” has a pretty loose definition. Any food that has been cooked using indirect heat for hours and hours is barbecue. But even this definition is often stretched.
The exact origins of barbecue aren’t certain, but the most likely theory is that it comes from barbacoa, a word taken from the Arawak people of the Caribbean. Originally, barbacoa referred to a wooden frame put up on posts, which the Arawak people would use to steam or smoke food. It was adopted by the Spanish colonists who went to the Caribbean, and from there it spread far and wide.
Most cultures have something that would fall under the definition of barbecue today, and each has their own traditions associated with it. Here, we’ll explore some of the most popular kinds that have sprung up across the globe.
The United States — BBQ
Barbecue has been in the United States since the very founding of the country. Even George Washington wrote about going to a barbecue in 1769. It’s a food enjoyed by people of all classes and backgrounds.
You can’t treat American barbecue like a monolith, because if you do you’ll make a lot of people angry. North and South Carolina tend to stick with whole-hog pork, but there are staunch disagreements on the kinds of sauce should be used in the cooking. Memphis also likes pork, but ribs and pork shoulder sandwiches take precedence. Kansas City branches out and uses all kinds of meat in their barbecue. And then there’s Texas, where everyone agrees that beef is best and yet there are still four completely different styles of barbecue that are popular in various parts of the state. Oh, and there’s also Brooklyn barbecue, but most southerners would say that Brooklyn barbecue doesn’t exist at all. Whatever you enjoy, there’s no one right way to do American barbecue.
Argentina — Asado
While asado literally just means “roast” in Spanish, to an Argentinian the name brings to mind a very important cultural food. Asado is essentially the national food of Argentina, and the tradition goes back to the gauchos (“cowboys”) who would roast large pieces of meat over a fire. The person who starts the asado even gets their own title: asador.
Asado is known for being a very, very large amount of meat. Some places will roast the entire cow, and not waste any part of the animal. And perhaps the most distinctive part of the meal is the sauce. Argentinians adamantly do not use anything that would be labeled “barbecue sauce.” Instead, they go with chimichurri, a sauce which has oregano, parsley, garlic, oil, pepper, onion, and vinegar. There might be salsa criollo, too, which is made up of onions, olive oil, red bell peppers and tomato. Also, a traditional asado isn’t complete without a Malbec wine to accompany the meal.
Korea — Gogi Gui
Gogi gui literally translates to “meat roasting,” but it’s probably better known in English-speaking countries simply as Korean barbecue. The best example of gogi gui, and perhaps the most famous Korean dish in the world, is bulgogi, which is made with beef or pork. The history of the dish goes back thousands of years.
The beef or pork in bulgogi is first marinated in soy sauce, garlic, honey, scallions and pepper for about 12 hours and then grilled. It’s then served with vegetables like cabbage, kimchi, zucchini and bean sprouts. As far as barbecue goes, bulgogi is a pretty well-rounded meal. In Korea, bulgogi is enjoyed by pretty much everyone and it can be eaten in any situation, be it a large gathering or a quick lunch. Korean barbecue has also been getting more popular in the United States and other countries recently, but keep in mind what you order might not be exactly authentic.
Hawaii — Kalua
Yes, I know, Hawaii is part of the United States, and technically we’ve already covered that country. But the barbecue tradition of Hawaii evolved entirely separate from the continental states. Kalua is food cooked in an underground oven called an imu, and it’s adapted from the cooking traditions of the native Hawaiians. Kalua pig is the most common meal prepared in an imu, with the pig buried underground, covered with hot ash and dug up later when it’s been cooked through.
Hawaiian barbecue might conjure images of Aloha shirts and tiki torches, that’s really more of a “luau-themed party” than an actual luau. A real luau will have poi (a staple food made from the stem of taro plants), kalua pig, poke and a range of side dishes. Luaus also generally involve musical entertainment, and they can be held for a variety of reasons, whether it be a marriage or a royal banquet.
India and Pakistan — Tandoor
The word tandoor refers to a specific kind of clay oven that is used for cooking a range of things, including bread, vegetables and, of course, meat. In areas of India and Pakistan, the tandoor has been around for about 5,000 years. The modern barbecue spin on it, however, is much more recent.
If you order tandoori chicken at a restaurant, you’ll get the now-famous chicken that’s been seasoned with yogurt, salt and lemon juice. Also, it’s dyed orange to make it look all the more enticing. Chicken had been cooked in a tandoor for centuries, but the food we eat today was created in the past 100 years. The dish, and a number of other famous meals that are served in British and American Indian restaurants, can be traced back to restaurant owner Mokha Singh Lamba and one of his employees, Kundan Lal Gujral. In the early 20th century, Lamba started a restaurant in Peshawar, Pakistan (before Pakistan and India were partitioned), and it became hugely popular thanks to Gujral’s unique recipes. The restaurant has been credited with launching Indian food into the mainstream, and the dishes are now found all over the world.
Taiwan — Mongolian Barbecue
Mongolian barbecue is really a misnomer, because it is not related to the Mongols at all. What is known as Mongolian barbecue actually came from Taiwan, and the name was coined about 700 years after Genghis Khan created the Mongol empire.
The cuisine started with Wu Jau-nan, who started a barbecue restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1951. The name is even more inaccurate because it’s actually a stir-fried dish, which isn’t really “barbecue.” The meal combines elements of Chinese stir-fry and Japanese teppanyaki, which is a method of cooking on an iron griddle. Mongolian barbecue can involve various meats, vegetables and sauces.
On a side note, Mongolia does have its own methods of barbecuing. One kind is Khorkog, which is meat, usually lamb or goat, which is cooked inside of a container using hot stones.
South Africa — Braai
Taken from an Afrikaans word meaning “grill,” braai cuts across all the cultures of South Africa. The word has many functions: you go to a braai where you eat food, you put the meat on the braai, you braai the meat. Braai works the same way the word “barbecue” does.
A braai is kind of like a potluck, and it holds a lot of cultural significance in South Africa. The main two meats you’ll find at a braai are lamb and beef prepared over a large fire, and of course there will be many, many sides. People may also choose to showcase local meat, like antelope and ostrich. These meats will then be covered with an assortment of chutneys and spices. The tradition is so important that Heritage Day, a South African holiday that commemorates the country’s past, was rebranded as Braai Day. But really, it’s fitting. There’s no better way to celebrate South African heritage than to gather together and prepare food the way their ancestors had for generations.