The Sizzling History of Chinese Barbecue: Origins, Evolution, and Iconic Recipes
Chef Jose Mier loves to explore all types of cooking from every region on the planet. One favorite style which he often turns to in his Sun Valley, CA kitchen is Chinese BBQ.
Chinese barbecue, also known as “shaokao” (烧烤), is a culinary tradition that has captivated the taste buds of millions across the globe. Its origins can be traced back centuries, rooted in Chinese culture and evolving over time to become a diverse and beloved form of cuisine. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of Chinese barbecue, exploring its inception, growth in popularity, and some of the most common and mouthwatering dishes associated with this delectable cooking style.
The Origins of Chinese Barbecue
To understand the origins of Chinese barbecue, we must journey through the annals of history. Chinese cuisine, renowned for its rich culinary heritage, is a testament to the country’s diverse regional flavors and cooking techniques. Barbecue in China finds its roots deep within this diverse culinary landscape.
- Ancient Beginnings: Chinese barbecue, in its earliest form, dates back to ancient times. It was believed to have originated during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046-256 BC). In the beginning, it was a simple method of cooking, involving roasting meat and other ingredients over an open flame. Bamboo skewers and rudimentary grills were commonly used.
- Influence of Mongolian Culture: The Mongol invasions and subsequent rule of China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) played a significant role in the evolution of Chinese barbecue. Mongolian culture brought with it the use of skewers and a penchant for grilling meats. This influence shaped the barbecue culture we know today, introducing flavors like cumin and chili.
- Regional Variations: Chinese barbecue isn’t a monolithic tradition; rather, it encompasses a wide array of regional variations. For instance, Cantonese barbecue, often referred to as “siu mei,” is famous for its roast duck, pork, and chicken, while Sichuan barbecue is characterized by its bold and fiery flavors. The diversity in regional barbecue styles reflects the vastness and richness of Chinese cuisine.
The Popularity of Chinese Barbecue
The growth in popularity of Chinese barbecue is a testament to the irresistible flavors it brings to the table. As the centuries rolled on, the culinary practice of barbecue became deeply embedded in Chinese culture and, in more recent years, found its way onto the global culinary stage.
- Street Food Sensation: One of the factors that propelled Chinese barbecue to popularity is its status as a street food sensation. In China, bustling street markets and food stalls offer a plethora of skewers and grilled delights. The irresistible aroma of skewered meats wafting through the air draws locals and tourists alike. It’s a quick, flavorful, and affordable option for a meal on the go.
- Modernization and Fusion: With China’s economic growth and urbanization, traditional barbecue methods have evolved. Modern barbecue restaurants offer a variety of meats and vegetables, often cooked over gas or electric grills. This adaptation has made barbecue more accessible and efficient, leading to its enduring popularity.
- International Appeal: Chinese barbecue has extended its reach far beyond the borders of China. Chinese immigrants and international culinary enthusiasts have embraced the flavors of Chinese barbecue, leading to its global appeal. From New York to London, Chinese barbecue restaurants have become staples in many cosmopolitan cities.
Common Dishes and Recipes of Chinese Barbecue
Chinese barbecue offers a delightful assortment of dishes and recipes, each with its unique flavors and characteristics. Here are some common dishes and recipes associated with Chinese barbecue:
- Char Siu (叉烧): Char siu is one of the most iconic Chinese barbecue dishes. It consists of tender, marinated pork (often shoulder or belly cuts) that is skewered and roasted until it acquires a succulent and slightly crispy exterior. The marinade typically includes a blend of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, honey, and Chinese five-spice powder.
- Peking Duck (北京烤鸭): Peking duck is a world-famous Chinese delicacy. The preparation of Peking duck involves inflating the duck with air and hanging it to dry for several hours. This results in a crispy skin, which is served with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, and sliced scallions. The contrast between the crispy skin and tender meat is a culinary masterpiece.
- Sichuan Skewers (四川串串): Sichuan skewers, known as “chuanchuan,” offer a spicy twist on traditional Chinese barbecue. These skewers feature a wide variety of ingredients, from meats to vegetables, all skewered on bamboo sticks. The distinctive feature is the spicy broth into which the skewers are dipped, imparting the fiery flavors of Sichuan cuisine.
- Cantonese Roast Duck (广东烧鸭): Cantonese roast duck, or “siu ngap,” is characterized by its glistening, caramelized skin and tender meat. The duck is marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, Chinese five-spice powder, and maltose syrup before being roasted to perfection. The result is a harmonious blend of sweet and savory flavors.
- Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆羊肉串): Xinjiang lamb skewers are a specialty of China’s Xinjiang region. These skewers feature succulent pieces of marinated lamb, often seasoned with a blend of cumin, chili powder, and other spices. They are grilled to perfection, resulting in a smoky, aromatic, and mildly spicy dish.
- Grilled Eggplant with Garlic Sauce (鱼香茄子): Chinese barbecue isn’t limited to meats; it also includes delectable vegetable dishes. Grilled eggplant with garlic sauce is a popular vegetarian option. The eggplant is sliced, grilled until tender, and then topped with a flavorful garlic sauce that includes soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and chili bean paste.
- Chinese Barbecue Ribs (糯米排骨): Chinese barbecue ribs, or “nuomi paigu,” are another mouthwatering dish. Pork ribs are marinated in a sweet and savory sauce featuring soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sugar, and spices. The ribs are typically slow-cooked until they become tender, developing a caramelized glaze.
- Spicy Tofu Skewers (麻辣豆腐串): For a vegetarian or vegan option with a spicy kick, spicy tofu skewers are a popular choice. Firm tofu is marinated in a spicy sauce, threaded onto skewers, and grilled until it develops a delightful char. These skewers are often served with a side of dipping sauce.
Chinese barbecue, deeply rooted in history and steeped in regional variations, has earned its place as a global culinary sensation. From the simple beginnings of roasting meat over an open flame to the diverse and flavorful array of dishes found in today’s Chinese barbecue, this tradition has evolved over the centuries, reflecting the rich culinary heritage of China.
Whether it’s the irresistible char siu, the world-famous Peking duck, or the fiery skewers of Sichuan cuisine, Chinese barbecue offers a tantalizing variety of flavors and textures that continue to captivate the palates of people worldwide. As China’s culinary influence continues to grow, it’s safe to say that Chinese barbecue is here to stay, and its savory delights will continue to enthrall food enthusiasts for generations to come.