There are people who will tell you in all seriousness that Americans invented barbecue, just as they invented hot dogs, blue jeans and democracy. None of this is true. Humans have been grilling meats over an open flame almost from the moment flames were open, which puts the invention of barbecue at more than a million years ago. Since then, there’s hardly a culture on the planet that hasn’t developed and fallen in love with its own grilling traditions, and the consequences of this love have been profound for our species. Barbecue has been credited with giving rise to everything from larger brains and smaller teeth to human speech and society, and blamed for everything from carbon emissions and colorectal cancer to domestic disputes and bromances. Indeed, humanity has been fiddling so long with spices, marinades, meat choices, heat sources and cooking techniques, there wasn’t much left for Americans to invent, comic aprons on the order of “If you’re reading this, bring me a beer” not included.
Anyone who embarks on a Barbecue World Tour: Long Island edition as I did recently, will be amazed by the variety of what gets grilled and how. But even more striking is how similar the impulses behind barbecue are, how similar its meaning is across cultures. All over the world, barbecuing alone is just sad, and in some places it’s unthinkable.
“Traditionally, you don’t have gas stoves in the Jamaican countryside, and we cooked outside on a wood fire,” said Lester Ellis, who grew up in the hills of Manchester Parish, in the center of the island. Along with two brothers, he opened Good Bickle in Center Moriches in December, fast becoming a go-to spot for jerk chicken and pork, thanks to chef Floyd McNeil, who grew up in Portland Parish, where jerk — Jamaica’s contribution to world barbecue culture — was invented in the 1940s. “A lot of people say jerk, jerk, jerk, but to bring out the taste of the jerk the meat has to be seriously smoked,” he said. That inimitable blend of spices and peppers matters, of course, and Good Bickle’s exceptionally tender, flavorful meats typically spend a day or two sitting in jerk marinade. But it’s the period spent smoking in the wood chip-fed barrel grill — roughly three hours — that will make a believer of you, that and the eatery’s sweet-and-tangy sauce. In a past life, McNeil operated his own barbecue stand back home “outdoors with wood, where you’re talking seven hours over a low fire, a long process.” And while Good Bickle’s methods might be different, the delicious results are the same.
Left: Chef Floyd McNeil smokes jerk chicken at Good Bickle in Center Moriches. Top: Good Bickle in Center Moriches. Bottom: Jerk pork with rice and peas, sweet plantains, and cabbage salad at Good Bickle. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski
Everywhere, grilling means a get-together — of family, friends, neighbors, villagers and more. Many a Japanese workday ends with co-workers gathering rounds of beers and yakitori — mini-kabobs of meat, fish and vegetables — and meeting in izakayas in a place not unlike, well, Meet Izakaya. As befits the genre, this Rockville Centre establishment (soon to open a second location in Commack) aims to expand your idea of what barbecue can be. In addition to meltingly tender meat — from rib-eye to pork belly to chicken slathered with a truffle mushroom sauce — Meet offers skewers of red snapper and squid, as well as okra, zucchini and other veggies. And while the dining area is spacious and quieter than its Japanese counterparts, noise levels often rise appreciably at happy hour, depending on the number of sake bombs dropped at the bar. The izakaya proves, if nothing else, that you can barbecue anywhere, but in most of the world — here included — it’s best enjoyed in the great outdoors with a minimum of fuss.
“In our time there was one tandoor in the village and everyone brought their food to cook there,” said Ram Bisht, who did not grow up in one of those villages but rather the foothills of the Himalayas, and yet he heard tell. Peering into Bisht’s own tandoor at Raagini, his North Indian restaurant in Baldwin, you see deep cracks in a round clay vessel, round because a tandoor is something to be gathered around, and cracked because the tandoor is never less than 500 degrees. Into it are stabbed long skewers of chicken tikka, the meat long-marinated in ginger-garlic paste, lemon and a little baking soda “to make the chicken juicy and tenderize it,” then marinated again in paprika and chili powder and garam masala and coriander and cumin and mustard oil. Periodically, Bisht brushes butter onto the bright orange chicken cubes, singed black at the points and productive of fat-dripping hisses. This is Indian barbecue of the highest order, the kind that would soon make our eyes roll back in our head, but for now Bisht made us wait for it, relating that tandoors were actually brought to India by the Mughals, and that a charcoal-packed portable one brings summertime barbecues to Bisht’s own backyard. “It’s on wheels, so you can roll it into the garage.”
Left: Ram Bisht, chef-owner of Raagini in Baldwin, makes chicken tikka. Top: An array of Indian spices that Bisht uses at his restaurant. Bottom: Chicken tikka and rosemary garlic naan at Raagini. Photo credit: Randee Daddona
“In the Philippines, we have a tradition, every town has a fiesta,” said Cherry Castellvi. “Anyone can come to your house, and you don’t have to know them, because we are very hospitable.” She thought for a moment. “Actually, times have changed and now it’s only friends and family.” Castellvi, who has just opened a second Island location of Kabayan Grill in Farmingville (the other is in East Meadow), hails from the Filipino province of Pampanga, a.k.a. the culinary capital of the Philippines, and some of the country’s biggest fiestas happen there. “When you tell people you are from Pampanga, that means, oh, you are a great cook. Many pigs and chickens are killed, and we do it in the backyard a lot of times.” Lechon — whole roasted suckling pig — is one of the crown jewels of Filipino barbecue and every fiesta worth its salt features one. Kabayan will roast one for you too, with a little advance notice, although pork skewers are available at all times, glorious to a fault, and just as sweet, sticky and irresistible, thanks to a similar preparation. “We marinate it for two or three days in Sprite, garlic, sugar and ground pepper,” said Castellvi, “and barbecue it slow on the grill.”
Modern barbecuers are forever looking for an excuse to flee the kitchen. The weather was too cold for that when Fabian Diessler opened El Che BBQ in January, but by March he’d migrated to his Eastport eatery’s parking lot on sunny weekends, happily grilling up Argentine parrillada for anyone in smelling distance. Which must have been plenty of people, given the runway-length charcoal pits he employs. The size is no accident. Elsewhere in Central and South America, Diessler said, “they cut the meat into little pieces, but we do ours in one big piece.” Watching as he barbecues whole racks of ribs, strips of flap steak that go on forever, four or five half-chickens and a dozen footlong choripan sausages all at the same time is worth a trip all by its own, but the real draw is Diessler’s knack for coaxing succulence out of every animal he throws on the pit, and the divine pleasure that is meat tout seul. “The only spice we use is salt, nothing else,” he said of Argentina’s ’cue ethos, although Diessler allowed that El Che’s housemade and fantastically fresh chimichurri sauce is a suitable enhancement, and that’s putting it mildly.
Left: Fabian Diessler, chef and co-owner of El Che BBQ in Eastport grills pork tenderloin, flap steak, short ribs, chicken breast. and sausages. Top: Diessler cuts into ribs. Bottom: Parrillada El Che at El BBQ features flap steak, pork tenderloin, short ribs, chicken breast and sausage. Photo credit: Randee Daddona
Korea: Kalbi and Bulgogi
Open spaces, simple dishes, minimal seasoning, raw meats. Sometimes barbecue seems like the ultimate in informal, no-plan, no-frills cooking. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, barbecue is also a first choice for special occasions that hark back to the days when successfully hunting and killing a large animal was cause enough for celebration“Our name means having a banquet, gathering people altogether, friends or family or whoever you would like, and having a feast,” said Timothy Lee, owner of Surasang in Syosset. Korean barbecue is as special as the occasions it graces, and Lee’s restaurant showcases thin slices of bone-in or -out beef short ribs (kalbi) and spicy pork (daeji bulgogi), both arriving soft and sweet from the kitchen (tabletop grills were a pandemic casualty), after a day spent in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, corn syrup, black pepper and garlic. Surasang’s excellent housemade gochujang sauce is worth every drop of heat it adds, and as befits a place named for a banquet, the barbecue comes with an entourage of condiments — bowls of bean sprouts, stir-fried slivers of potato, tabs of fish cake and two kinds of kimchi. Korean barbecue, like barbecue the world over, is simple and complex at once, labor-intensive and no-frills, as special and predictable as a holiday. “Birthdays, New Year’s Day, Korean Thanksgiving, we gather,” said Lee. “We like to work hard, play hard and eat well.”
Turkey: Shish Kebab
“We don’t use a lot of spices,” said Diessler’s brother from another barbecue mother, Ufuk Cetinkaya, the chef-owner of Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet. “When you eat lamb, you have to taste the lamb. That’s how our kebabs are.” His West Hempstead kitchen is compact and the grill of modest size, though still large enough to execute chicken kebabs that await only Turkuaz’s pepper paste to achieve perfection, along with a few adana skewers of ground lamb, all of it presided over by a nearby cylinder of spinning lamb meat. Thin shavings of the latter are set gently atop a bed of housemade croutons for Turkuaz’s justly adored Iskender kebab, which Cetinkaya finishes by spooning tomato sauce over the top, scooping some yogurt onto the plate and, if you’re lucky, sending a wheel of shiny pide bread to your table. So authentically Turkish are his wares, it’s a surprise to learn that Cetinkaya learned the art of the kebab not in his native Istanbul but the place he traded it for at age 19, New York City, where he apprenticed in Turkish restaurants. But it was his home country that kindled his love of the kebab, that and loving memories of barbecues past. “We grew up on picnics, open spaces,” he said. “On holidays, my dad would grill on the beach.”
Left: Ufuk Cetinkaya, chef-owner of Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet in West Hempstead grills chicken and lamb. Top: Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet in West Hempstead. Bottom: Chicken, lamb, and vegetables on the grill at Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet. Photo credit: Randee Daddona
“Afghanis, on holidays, would go to Queens Flushing Park back in the day and cook on a little grill,” recalled owner-chef Omar Mosaver of six-year-old Kabul Kabab House in Westbury. Mosaver is a second-generation meat man, his father having started the original Kabul in Queens in 1988. As the name implies, skewered meats are king at both, and the doors to each open onto a glassed-walled grill area offering spectacular views of kebab action. “We use cumin and coriander as the signature spices, which is similar to a lot of other cultures, but our meats are a little more mild,” said Mosaver, and perhaps a bit more varied as well. Kabul produces fine kebabs of beef, salmon, lamb and several kinds of kofta, ground meat skewers similar to Turkish adana. All are plated simply, with a helping of heavenly Afghani rice, a bit of raw onions and a grilled half-tomato. Which is all you need.
El Che BBQ, 491 Montauk Hwy., Eastport, 631-801-6277, elcheweb.wordpress.com
Good Bickle, 617 Montauk Hwy., Center Moriches, 631-909-3720, goodbicklerestaurant.com
Kabayan Grill, 1075 Portion Rd., Farmingville, 631-320-0708; 1634 Front St., East Meadow, 516-500-9574; kabayangrill.org
Kabul Kabab House, 247 Post Ave., Westbury, 516-280-4753, kabulkababhouse.com
Meet Izakaya, 216 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre, 516-608-9191, meetizakaya.com
Raagini, 924 Atlantic Ave., Baldwin, 516-608-5578, raagininy.com
Surasang, 336 Jericho Tpke, Syosset, 516-496-8989, surasanglis.com
Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet, 493 Hempstead Tpke, West Hempstead, turkuazmediterranean.com