This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES NL in August, 2016.
Recently, my friends had to move with little notice. Instead of tossing out everything in the refrigerator and the kitchen, we decided to throw anything edible in the house onto the barbecue. From this experiment, I've learned two things. One: grilled watermelon with granola, honey, and black pepper is better than it sounds. Two: barbecues don't have to be boring.
For some unexplainable reason, Europeans turn into parochial old cows when we go for a barbecue. We do what we've always done in our country. In the Netherlands, we eagerly put pork belly on the grill, and people will give you a strange look when there's no peanut sauce on the table. In Belgium, it's no barbecue without garlic bread, and there's always that one friend who has those crazy Antwerp white sausages with him.
Traditions and pre-marinated barbecue packs are fine of course, but you won't impress your mother in-law with that. Mothers-in-law are important.
But fear not. With the help of John Zeefal, grill boss of the Bijlmer (a neighborhood in the southeast of Amsterdam), we explored barbecue traditions around the world.
"When I went to a barbecue with my Dutch friend's family for the first time, I got some pork belly and pork satay. I thought to myself, 'This is it?' It got me excited at the same time. I decided that next time we barbecue, I'm gonna make everything myself. You can literally put everything on a barbecue—anything goes. I like that inventive aspect. And if you can grill even a little bit, the girls will like you. It impresses them. Maybe that's why I started with cooking," John laughs. "I'm happily that sucker that stands behind the barbecue for hours at a party, and really enjoys it."
Shashlyk in pomegranate marinade (Russia)
My Russian girlfriend Rita Pliashkevich told me, "In Russia we mainly barbecue in nature, with shashlyk. These are long skewers with pork, chicken, or beef. It's very easy to eat—you won't have to use plates. You eat the shashlyk with pickled gherkins, and you drink shots of vodka."
Each family pretty much makes its own marinade. John went for veal in Russian red wine with pomegranate marinade. "You just add the meat to a mix of dry red wine, fresh pomegranate juice, chopped onion, lime juice, salt, pepper, and thyme. Let the meat absorb everything for a night," says John.
My friend also told me that there's a tradition when eating shashlyk: "Men who eat it, toast to their wives, their daughters, and love. Actually, I think they mainly do so to suck up, so their wives won't get angry because they drink so many shots."
Let's do that. John pours a shot of vodka on the floor. "The first sip is for the deceased people so that they can also have a bit of fun." He takes a sip, chews the meat, and bites into a pickle. "This has to be done with the vodka. It gives a strong flavor, and after that the fresh pomegranate gives a delicious shiver on your tongue."
Chicken hearts satay (Brazil)
A Brazilian girlfriend of mine told me that in Brazil you'd find barbecue grills full of chicken hearts on skewers. John isn't particularly keen on it though, saying: "We make sambal from hearts and kidneys in Suriname. We throw them in a blender with onion, garlic, and lots of pepper. If you're at a party and you see sambal that looks like beef, it will probably be the best sambal you've ever tasted. Still, I find the idea very gross. That's why I think I'm not gonna like this."
The marinade consists of soy sauce, beer, grated ginger, poultry seasoning, garlic, parsley, and sea salt. Let it rest in the marinade for about four hours and then lay them on the grill.
Our judgment is milder than we'd expected. I was very scared to try this, but now I'm quietly snacking chicken heart after chicken heart. Meanwhile, John spits something out. "Sorry, ladies," he says. "I don't swallow on principle. I must be honest, they look really good, and they are quite tasty. Actually, it's like I'm just eating a regular satay. But if I have to chew for too long, I realize what it is that I'm eating. That makes me crazy. Nevertheless, it's a must for a trendy barbecue. Gin and tonics with chicken hearts: yes."
Grilled sardines (Tunisia)
"The best barbecue I've ever had was in Alicante and Ibiza. It consisted of very salty sardines and bread only. Since then, I need to have sardines when I go barbecuing. The simpler the barbecue, the better it often is," says John.
"They put sardines with cumin powder on the grill in Tunisia," Tunisian Rima Zagheden told me earlier. "It's a real delicacy because sardines are very expensive for the people there. It is primarily something we eat when family members haven't seen each other for a long time, to celebrate the reunion. We eat Tunisian couscous salad and harissa—our version of sambal—with it."
"Remove the Sardine scales, then the fins and guts, and marinate them in garlic, coriander, dried red chili peppers, grated lime zest, and some lime juice, olive oil, pepper, and salt," says John. When the sardines are on the barbecue, he sprinkles some cumin on them, and we serve the fish with a sauce of mixed spring onion, lime, pitted and peeled tomatoes, chili and coriander.
"This is great," says John. "I was worried that the Tunisian sauce would be too overwhelming, but the sardine has simply remained sardine. Even more, the sauce properly compliments the fishy taste." The sardines are crisp, full of flavor, and gone in no time.
There's not much to say about grilled halloumi other than that it is one of the best barbecue inventions ever, especially for the lazy person. All you have to do is get a big lump of Greek cheese, cut it into thick slices, put the slices on a skewer, and grill them with olive oil, thyme, pepper, and herbs.
"This is perfect for vegetarians. Once you've tried this, you'll never want to have those fake meat burgers from the supermarket again," John concludes. The rest of us nod, but say nothing. We are too busy chewing on this Greek delicacy.
Surinamese chicken with cassava (Suriname)
John also brings his own dish to the barbecue. "I marinated a few large chicken thighs in a peanut sauce—the fresh, spicy one from the shop that you have to make by adding boiling water. I'm going to grill cassava with it," he says, "a side dish that is perfect on the grill."
Cassava is a root that has to be on the grill for half an hour, until it bursts and is soft inside. "A barbecue is a real experience in Suriname. I remember that back in the day, when my father said we were going to barbecue the next day, I couldn't sleep. I loved it so much. The whole family would come together, and from noon to night, we barbecued. We ate a lot of meat, but also a lot of noodles, fried rice and potato salad. I ate until I couldn't anymore. It's also quite normal to grill vegetables like cassava," says John. "You can slice it open afterwards, and pour peanut sauce over it."
Blackened peppers (Turkey)
In Turkey you won't see a barbecue without red peppers. They're grilled without seasoning until the skin looks black. My Turkish friend Tugba Öztemir defines the side dish as "pure and fire."
"Yeah, that's nice," says John. "And simple. It's not something I would necessarily want at each barbecue, but it's fun. Especially for vegetarians."
Stuffed fish (Philippines)
"We get the fish fresh from the sea, pull the guts out, fill it with vegetables, sew it together and toss the whole thing on the grill. No aluminum foil needed," the Philippine Chris Sanchez told me. "It's the best thing ever, and if you want to go completely crazy, you can also add a marinade of Sprite, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce and lime."
The filling of chopped tomato, onion, ginger, garlic, chili and shrimp paste is easy to make. Putting everything in the fish—in this case a bandeng, a typical Filipino fish—is easy as well. Sewing the fish together is the tricky part. The scales should remain on, so you'll need a thick needle—and steady fingers.
A stuffed fish on a barbecue just looks awesome, but when we try the fish, we're a bit disappointed. The fish itself looks really cool, but in taste it's letdown. "I think it's because we are not used to this type of fish. I would try it again, but with bass and without tomatoes. The juice of the tomato stews the fish. I prefer it crispy. I would put in some hard herbs, onion and garlic for example," is John's final judgment.
Venezuelans love salsa, and the guasacaca is the king of this. It is the perfect dip for every piece of meat, fish, or vegetable that you grill.
Guasacaca is an avocado salsa, but it's not exactly like guacamole. It is smoother, and has a saucier texture. You can make it by putting a lot of ingredients into the blender: avocados, lime, jalapenos, coriander, parsley, onion, green pepper, garlic, and lots of olive oil.
Egg-stuffed peppers (Argentina)
The Argentines are legendary grill masters, but besides huge quantities of meat, they also know how to make simple vegetarian side dishes, such as egg-stuffed peppers.
We take a bite of the pepper. "It's best when you crack the egg in a small pepper, and then very briefly grill it on low heat," says John. "The yolk should still be a little runny. Sunny side up!" It tastes good, and gives a kind of healthy twist to the otherwise meaty barbecue. "I think it's also very nice for children's parties, because you can let them barbecue something themselves. They'd love it," John thinks.
Goat brochettes (Burundi)
Yes, they barbecue goat balls in Burundi. No, we're not going to do that here. What we are going to do is put goat meat on a stick. It's a barbecue dish that's at least as Burundi as grilled goat balls.
We put goat meat and onion pieces on sticks, and when they're on the barbecue, we put a vegetable oil over it. The oil consists of crushed Roma tomatoes, tomato paste, piri piri chili, salt, and olive oil.
"These are really nice," concludes John. He is right. Before this barbecue, I would've never tried to eat goat meat. It seemed too bony, tough, and wiry. But to be honest, this is a successful barbecue dish, even for our Western tongues. "It's very difficult to find goat meat in the summer," says John, "you'd have to order it."