How to Eat Obscene Amounts of Barbecue and Live to Tell the Tale
New Year, new you? We all know how that goes. You make a resolution to work out, go on a diet, lose a few pounds. Three weeks in, your will power has melted like last week’s snowfall. Especially, if you’re a barbecue addict like I am.
Well, what if there were a way to enjoy your ‘que and keep your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier? There is, and the answer lies not in looking South, but in looking East. The Far East that is. Read on!
A guy’s got to have street cred. A guy also wants to live to 60.
As the founder of Barbecue University, author of books like Barbecue! Bible, Planet Barbecue, How to Grill, the Brisket Chronicles, and the host of Project Fire and Project Smoke on American Public Television, I eat a lot of barbecue. A whole lot. Fat-oozing briskets, plate-burying racks of ribs, pork shoulders roasted dark as anthracite and as smoky as a fireman’s jumpsuit. The taping of my TV show involves preparing up to 30 different smoked and grilled dishes, and all must be sampled on air with gusto again and again.
As you can imagine, it’s with great trepidation I approach my annual physical exam—yes, folks, we all need them—especially considering that my doc is a cardiologist. I mean, there’s only so much good a daily dose of Lipitor can do.
So how can a guy who eats and writes about barbecue for a living keep his cholesterol levels, calorie intake, and waistline in check?
The answer is a twist on the old pioneer’s mantra: Go East, young man. Go East.
Live-fire cooking is practiced with cult-like enthusiasm in virtually every country in the world. The short list of grilled masterpieces includes Jamaican jerk, Brazilian rodizio, Turkish shish kebab, Indian tandoori, and Moroccan mechoui. But not all barbecue is created equal. In the West, big is beautiful. Our taste runs to huge hunks of animal protein—think Texas brisket, Mexican barbacoa, pork shoulder, or Argentinean asado (cowbow-style, fire-roasted whole sides of beef, pig, and lamb). After all, in the Americas, we have vast tracts of land for raising cattle and other livestock and vast forests for fueling our barbecue pits.
A very different ethos exists in Asia, where socio-economic factors have inspired a small-is-beautiful approach to barbecue. How small? Real small. Think Singaporean satay, Japanese yakitori, or Hong Kong-style rotisserie chicken wings. Indonesia’s aptly named sate lalat (a ground beef kebab whose name literally means “fly”) measures a mere 1 inch long. Historically, Asians have had lots of manpower to do the chopping, slicing, and skewering, but relatively limited supplies of wood for charcoal. The result is a variety of tiny kebabs you can grill quickly over diminutive and fuel-efficient grills, like the Japanese hibachi.
So size does matter, and it’s one way to eat your barbecue and maintain your health, too. Another solution is the manner in which Asians eat barbecue. In the West (particularly in the American West and South), barbecue typically consists of a large chunks of meat served with a sugary sauce and served with Wonder Bread or deep-fried hushpuppies. Vegetables are an afterthought (maybe a pill cup of slaw or a spoonful of collard greens) and as often as not, they’re ignored entirely. You know, real barbecue men don’t really eat vegetables, etc.
Well, real barbecue men do eat grilled vegetables in Asia, which brings me to the second reason why health-conscious grill masters should look East. In many Asian countries, a grilled dish includes all the major food groups–vegetables, fruits, and grains, in addition to animal protein—on a single plate. In fact, the grilled meat is often used more as an accent or condiment, rather than the primary source of calories and nutrients.
Case in point, Vietnamese bo bun. The barbecue in question is thinly shaved beef, which is marinated in a potent mixture of fish sauce and garlic, prior to being smokily charred over charcoal. The grilled meat is served over a bed of cool rice noodles, with a plate of sliced chiles, crisp bean sprouts, fresh basil, mint, and cilantro leaves. You wrap these ingredients in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dip them into a sweet-salty carrot-spiked dipping sauce called nuoc cham. What you get is the meat, grain, and salad course all rolled into one. If you were to diagram this dish from a nutritional point of view, you’d wind up with something that looks like the USDA Food Pyramid (meat in moderation; plant foods in abundance). And because the ingredients are so explosively flavorful, you won’t even miss the fat.
This model for healthy barbecue exists throughout Asia. Consider the popular Thai salad, yam nua yang. Here, a sensibly sized portion of grilled steak is served atop a lush salad composed of chiles, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, Thai basil, fresh mint, lettuce, and roasted peanuts. Served this way, a steak that would feed one person in the West satisfies a family of four in Thailand. Of course, the steak is marinated with taste bud-teasing doses of garlic, chiles, and fish sauce, so it tastes much bigger than it really is.
The ultimate example of the healthy Asian approach to barbecue may well be one of Korea’s national dishes—kalbi kui—and it’s all the more remarkable because it features one of the least likely “health” foods: the beef short rib. In the West, this fatty but delectable rib is smoked and served on the bone in all its primal glory. In Korea, the meat is sliced paper-thin and grilled alongside garlic cloves, scallions, and chiles on a charcoal brazier in the center the table, then served with steamed rice and an assortment of fiery pickles called kimchi. You wrap the whole shebang in romaine lettuce leaves to be dipped in a sweet salty Asian pear dipping sauce. Once again, it’s the USDA Food Pyramid disguised as world-class barbecue. I’d put it next to any artery-clogging American-style rib in a heartbeat.
Does this mean I eat only Asian-style barbecue? Not by a long shot. As my late friend, Julia Child, used to say, all things in moderation. When in public, and at BBQ U, I can brisket and pork shoulder with the best of them. But when I’m grilling for my family at home, as often as not, I follow the Asian formula: a modest amount of meat or fish, a lot of grilled vegetables and grains, with flavorful condiments to set off the gustatory fireworks.
Especially, the week before I’m scheduled to see my cardiologist.
Steven’s Favorite Asian-Style Barbecue Recipes:
Grilled Beef Short Ribs are best served with flavorful Korean side dishes, like kimchi or tangy cucumber salad.
Tiny flame-seared beef kebabs—the cumin, coriander, and turmeric marinade rocks.
Char siu literally means “fork-roast”—a reference to an ancient Cantonese practice of roasting pork on fork-shaped skewers over charcoal.
Smoky beef, sweet-salty barbecue sauce, and pickled cucumbers for crunch on a steamed bun.