It's beautiful in its simplicity: a few bits of meat, maybe some vegetables, on skewers or on their own, introduced to fire. That's it.
A barbecue is food at its finest, a perfectly minimalist way of preparing a meal that even after countless millennia of evolution, innumerable societal improvements and the invention of the Thermomix, is still one of the best ways to cook and eat around.
But who does it best? Pretty much every culture has its own version of wood-burned meat and veg, from shashlik in Georgia to parrilla in Argentina to the smoky briskets of the USA. But some do it better than others.
South Africans don't mind a huge slab of meat, cooked over hot coals on a traditional braai. They don't mind boerewors either, the spiral-shaped beef sausages packed with spices. Ribs are big too. A South African braai isn't just a charcoal-fired grill – it's also the name of the gathering that takes place around it, something that usually includes a small amount of salad and a large amount of fun.
Boerewors at a South African braai.
You could argue that Australian grillers' obsession with gas barbecues is ruining our potential, and you'd have a point. A gas flame doesn't do much for flavour. But what Australia does have is a great culture around the barbecue – the family gatherings, the backyard cricket, the public park barbies that you diligently clean off for the next person to use. That's something to celebrate.
To cook traditional jerk chicken or pork in Jamaica you need one 44-gallon drum, cut in half, filled with hot coals, with a grill placed across the top. Then you need a few large hunks of meat, slathered in a mix of spices and then thrown over the fire. A little while later, you have barbecued perfection. To find a good purveyor of jerk meat in Jamaica, just follow the smoke, and the queues.
Jerk chicken, Jamaica. Photo: iStock
It's a privileged position in Argentina to be designated "asador", the master of the barbecue. It's that person's job to do grilling right. It's their job to build a fire from scratch, from wood and paper and matches. It's their job to scoop hot coals under the grill and move those grates to the right height. It's their job to load up the grill, to cook tomatoes and onions, chorizos and ribs, entrana steaks and "ojo de bife" to smoky, charred perfection. And almost Argentinean can perform this task amazingly well.
Go to any Thai market and you'll see plumes of smoke towering into the sky, a sure sign that there are barbecue masters at work. Some will be grilling whole fish, skewered with bamboo. Others will be preparing chicken or pork satays, those charred, bite-sized morsels soaked in coconut cream and dripping peanut-and-lemongrass sauce. Still more will be cooking up sai krog, the spiced Thai sausages so popular throughout the country. You can't go wrong.
Satays in Thailand. Photo: iStock
This may not be the country that immediately springs to mind when you think about barbecues, but the Georgians have a long history of grilling meat over hot coals. There it's called shashlik: hunks of lamb, beef or chicken that are marinated, skewered and cooked to succulent, meaty perfection. Throw in some fresh-baked Georgian bread and few salads, and you have yourself a feast.
Forget about veggies. They're not much of a big deal around here. What is a big deal is meat: cut after extravagant cut of tender, delicious, grilled meat. Visit any churrascaria in Brazil and you'll come to know just how good it can be. You sit there at a table while this huge array is offered to you, from beef steaks to pork loins to chicken hearts to chorizos to whole racks of beef ribs that are wheeled out on a trolley and carved before your eyes. Now that's a barbecue.
The USA could occupy a blog post all of its own when it comes to barbecue, so passionate are they about it, and so varied is the grilled cuisine, from north to south, east to west. It's smoked brisket with slaw and pickles in Texas. It's famous barbecue sauce in Carolina. It's ribs in Kentucky. It's pulled pork in California. It's burgers and hot dogs and steaks and chickens that are grilled over hot coals and served up to friends and family across the nation.
Another country with a long history of grilling is Iran, where you only need one taste of a koobideh kebab – a shish-kebab of minced lamb, grilled and sprinkled with citrusy sumac, served with a blistered tomato and fluffy saffron rice – to know that this is one great place to eat. Kebab sellers can be found across the country, as can those who appreciate their simple brilliance.
As with so many aspects of Japanese culture, barbecued food in this amazing country is small, delicate, and perfect. We're talking yakitori, the grilled skewers of everything you could ever imagine cooking on a fire, from crispy chicken skin to single spears of asparagus, hunks of salty pancetta to lightly grilled slices of salmon. A yakitori dinner in Japan, paired with plenty of sake and good company, is one of the best ways you could spend an evening.
What's your favourite country for barbecue? Do you think Australia deserves its place on the list?
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Watch: Beauty and the Backpacker
It's luxury degustation versus campside cooking as Ben Groundwater and Emma Markezic take an epic, 1000-km road trip through Western Australia. Ben and Emma travelled as guests of Tourism Western Australia.