No Australian is unfamiliar with the flame, grilled and smoky flavours of charred skewers doused with cold drinks in summer. Barbecue plays a big part in our culture - we grew up with it, we connect with it, and we make new friends during all those gatherings around the grill. If you get as excited about barbecue as much as we do, you must wonder when did it all start? Who invented it? How much do we know about this age-old technique?
Here’s a fun fact: The first ever pitmasters were probably women!
Though this speculation has yet to be confirmed, it is likely to be true. One thing we are certain of is that the mastery of fire has paved the way for human evolution, especially our brain. TED Talk speaker and neuroscientist, Suzzane Herculano-Houzel, said that cooking pushes us far ahead in the evolutionary path than any other species in this world. Cooking is how we become human.
Here is how barbecue began:
About one and a half million years ago, while our ancestors were wandering through the forest after a fire, they followed a rather seductive fragrance and stumbled upon the seared carcass of a wild pig. With curiosity, they poked the side of it and were captivated by the warm, molten fat in the charred meat. After that, they soon learned how to cook with an open flame using wooden frames to hang the meat above or placing the meat on the side.
Cooking not just made it easier for them to extract energy from raw ingredients but also saved them time and energy from hunting and eating the food. Because of this evolutionary advantage, our ancestors had more time to socialise, form tribes and family, and reproduce. The tribal structure started to establish where men became hunters while women became cooks. And the rest is history.
“Barbecue” in English is obtained from a Taino Indian word that Spanish explorers pronounced similar to “barbacoa” referring to a wooden frame where the native Americans dried and smoked various types of meat. Perhaps the word “barbecue” itself makes people think that America is its homeland, though where it started remains a mystery till this day.
Barbecue in Asia - Skewers and kebabs
None of us is completely sure about the kebab’s country of origin, yet many stories claim that it is from either Turkey or Persia, modern Iran. In Turkish, the term we call “Shish Kebab” means meat on the sword. This term was formed during the war when soldiers had to eat grilled animal meat off their swords. The Persian story of skewers is completely different when the people used skewers as a complementary dish to their wine.
The introduction of skewers soon travelled to other continents around the world. Americans substituted lamb for beef and chicken and tended to add more meat to the skewers which makes the grilling process of kebabs much longer. Making its way to Asian countries, the kebabs were soon transformed into satay skewers by the Indonesians with their well-known peanut sauce and yakitori chicken skewers by the Japanese.
To barbecue is a way of life rather than a desirable method of cooking
Other countries in Southeast Asia started to pick up this style of cooking and establish variations of skewers using their local ingredients and preferences. During the Asian Nom Nom cooking class a few days ago, we had as much fun learning about the history of barbecue as much as cooking. We made Cambodian beef skewers, Viet grilled pork (nem nuong) and fried rice and we have put recipes here for anyone who missed it.
1. Cambodian Beef Skewers
INGREDIENTS (Yield: 15-18 skewers)
- Pound lemongrass, bay leaves, thyme, lemon zest, lime zest, ginger, and garlic in a stone mortar with the pestle until combined. Add turmeric powder, lemon juice, salt, sugar, and cinnamon ground into the mixture and pound again. The paste can be prepared in advance and refrigerated for up to 3 days.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir the beef cubes with fish sauce and oil. Mix in the paste until beef is evenly coated. Thread beef strips onto the skewers and set aside in the fridge for 15 minutes before grilling.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over the charcoal grate. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Grill beef skewers over direct heat until cooked through, about 3-5 minutes per side. Serve right away.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Flavour
2. Thai Chicken Skewers with Peanut Sauce
INGREDIENTS (Yield: 15-18 skewers)
|For marinade:||For Thai peanut sauce|
For Thai skewers:
- After cutting the chicken into 3cm-thick cubes, mix with curry powder, white sugar, red curry paste, salt and 300 ml coconut milk in a mixing bowl. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, or overnight.
- Thread onto skewers. Quick tip: Remember not to squeeze too many pieces in one skewer as this will stop the chicken to be cooked evenly.
- Heat 1.5 tbsp oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat.
- Cook skewers in batches for 3 minutes on each side until golden.
For Thai peanut sauce:
- In a saucepan, heat the remaining 100 g coconut milk and peanut sauce ingredients over medium-low heat. Stir the sauce frequently. Allow the sauce to simmer for roughly 5-7 minutes until thickened.
- Adjust consistency with water and seasoning to taste.
The most treasured thing passed down from generation to generation are family recipes
3. Viet Grilled Pork Skewers
INGREDIENTS (Yield: 15-18 skewers)
- 800 g fatty ground pork, partially frozen
- 100 g pork fat trimmings, cut into small cubes; partially frozen
- 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated white sugar
- 1/2 cup (100 g) Squid Brand fish sauce
- 1 bulb garlic, peel cloves and chop roughly
- 1 tbsp of toasted rice powder (optional)
- 1 shallot, peel and chop roughly
- 1 1/2 tbsp Knorr Kingsford corn starch
- 1 tbsp McKenzie’s baking powder
- 1/2 cup (70 g) Tusino nem nuong curing powder
- 1 cup ice
- Break off partially frozen ground pork and pork fat and place them into the food processor. Add sugar, fish sauce, garlic, shallots, rice powder, corn starch, baking powder, curing powder and ice. Process for about 10 minutes on high until you get a smooth, light pink paste.
- Using rubber gloves, attach the pork paste on the skewers. Quick tip: lightly oil your gloves to avoid the paste from sticking. Grill the nem nuong for about 5-7 minutes each side until cooked.
- If you prefer not to use the grill and skewers, you can pan fry the nem nuong. Pour 1/2 mixture into a large frying pan, turn the fire to low and gently spread the mixture evenly. Increase the fire to medium and allow the nem nuong to cook for 3-5 minutes. Flip the patty and leave for another 3-5 minutes until it turns into a nice reddish color with some char.
- Cut into strips and serve on its own or as part of other Vietnamese dishes.
Pull up a chair. Take a seat. Come join us. Life is endlessly delicious!
4. Fried Rice
- In a large frying pan or wok, add the vegetable oil and fry the beaten egg over medium heat. Wait until the egg starts to set and gently stir the egg until it turns light golden.
- Transfer the egg to a bowl, add ⅓ of the minced garlic, veggies and a tiny bit of water into the wok allowing them to cook thoroughly for 3-4 minutes. Throw in the minced pork and stir fry until the veggies and pork are cooked. Take the mixture out.
- Stir fry the rest of the garlic over medium heat for 10 seconds (or when the garlic scent appears). Lower the fire and add the rice. Break up the rice with the spatula, sprinkle some water if the rice is too hard. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste. When the rice is almost ready, stir in the veggies and egg until everything is mixed well together.
- Sprinkle the chopped spring onions before turning off the fire. Your signature garlic and egg fried rice are ready to serve!
There is no love more sincere than the love of food
Get your grill ready and smoke away from the skewers this Christmas! Looking for more authentic Asian recipes for your Christmas? Join our foodie community on Asian Nom Nom. In our next cooking class, we will be showing you how to prepare desserts next Thursday 10th, December 2020; and drinks on Thursday 17th, December 2020.