Americans argue about few things more fervently or more frequently than barbecue: pork ribs versus beef, charcoal versus gas, dry rub versus sauce, east Texas's chopped, pecan-smoked brisket versus the hickory-char variety from Kansas City. But in all that haggling over ingredients, technique, and regional variations, we rarely stop to peer beyond our own borders and see what the rest of the world is throwing on their grills. And that's a pity, because the word "barbecue" isn't even American – "barbacoa" comes from an indigenous Caribbean language predating the birth of our nation, and the practice of cooking protein over a flame is far older than that.
As Chinese chef Martin Yan, host of the long-running show Yan Can Cook, once put it, "Man discovered fire. Five minutes later, he invented barbecue." And since then, we've developed as many distinct ways of grilling as languages – from Asia to Africa, Australia, South America, and the Caribbean – and each has undeniable merits of mixing up smoke, meat, sugar, and spice. Contemporary Korean barbecue, for example, taking its cues from the court culture of the Choson Dynasty, elevates short ribs – a cheap braising cut in the West – to the height of grilling luxury by way of clever butchery. Jamaicans have transformed chicken, that most basic of birds, into a national dish and international sensation through the generous application of an herb rub that could only have emerged from one of the most spice-rich rain forests on the planet.
Even with the most seemingly American cut of meat – the big, juicy steak – it turns out that our fast-and-hot sear isn't the only path to glory. Way down in pasture-rich Argentina, where they eat 118 pounds of beef per person, per year – nearly all of it grass-fed – weekend asados, or barbecues, revolve around pure, unadulterated beef, cooked low and slow to a decidedly un-American medium well, to bring out the meat's strongest flavors. And the old fishing cultures of western Europe, from southern France to Portugal, have pulled off the most inventive grilling trick of all: making fresh, whole sardines truly fun to eat.
So before you grill locally, think globally. Who knows? You might go all summer without buying a bottle of barbecue sauce. Launch Gallery >>
Photograph by Hans Gissinger - Food styling by Brett Kurzweil
Portuguese Whole Sardines
In Portugal's fishing villages, eating sardines is a ritual. "Typically the fisherman goes out in the morning with his son," says Portugal-born chef Manuel Azevedo, who now lives in Sonoma, California, where he owns a contemporary Portuguese restaurant, LaSalette. "They net sardines while his wife gets the charcoal going, and that'll be their lunch – eat it standing up and toss the bones to a cat." Whole fresh sardines, seared on the embers, have grown from a traditional Portuguese staple to worldwide-status food, especially on upscale Mediterranean menus around the U.S. Chalk it up, in part, to omega-3 mania: Sardines are loaded with the heart-healthy fatty acids and are very low in mercury. But it's the intense flavor that makes the lowly sardine the perfect grilling fish. "Halibut, by contrast, is too delicate," says Mediterranean specialist Craig Stoll, executive chef at Delfina in San Francisco. "But sardines? The grilled flavors and the fish enhance one another instead of fighting."
• Sardines (about 3 per person)
• olive oil
Buy ultrafresh fish. Fresh sardines are seasonal – look for them in the summer months – and powerfully flavored, so freshness is paramount. Less fresh sardines should be gutted before grilling.
Place them in a grill basket. The one modern-day upgrade that can only enhance the experience is a nonstick fish-grilling basket (charbroil.com). Toss whole sardines in olive oil while your grill gets nice and hot, then lay them side by side in the grilling basket, as many as will fit in a single layer without crowding. Set the basket on the hottest part of the grill. After 2 minutes, turn it over and let them cook for another 2 minutes.
Credit: Photograph by Hans Gissinger - Food styling by Brett Kurzweil
Serve whole. Sprinkle liberally with salt and squeeze a fresh lemon to finish. Add an empty bowl for carcasses. Pick up a whole sardine, holding the head in one hand and the tail in the other, and eat like a tiny corn on the cob.