When you're in for a grilling

In China, different cuisines have different grill or barbecue traditions, from grilled pig brains in Sichuan Province and Chongqing to seafood feasts along the east coast.
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When people first started to eat cooked food shortly after the domestication of fire, they grilled meat.

As the earliest form of cooking, grilling can be achieved with minimal tools and cookware. Outdoors, where resources are limited, a campfire plus sticks to hold food in place are sufficient to make a meal and fill empty stomachs.

The Maillard reaction from grilling at high temperatures also gives meat a special roast aroma and flavor.

The Chinese character for grill or broil is 炙 (zhi), the upper part of which means meat while the lower half refers to fire, so together it describes “cooking meat over fire.”

For thousands of years, grilling has evolved from a primitive cooking form to sophisticated, gourmet delicacies. It has been meat-based since ancient times, but now vegetables, staples and even fruits are cooked this way for unique flavors.

In China, different cuisines have different grill or barbecue traditions, from grilled pig brains in Sichuan Province and Chongqing to seafood feasts along the east coast.

This week, we take a look at some of the most popular Chinese grilled dishes.

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Grill as a form of cooking is popular across China.

Carnivores’ club

The majority of grilled dishes are cooked with meat such as mutton, pork, beef and poultry, and the flavor profile is usually very intense because of the heavy seasonings.

Roasted whole lamb and grilled mutton skewers from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region are iconic Chinese grilling delicacies one cannot miss, especially in the colder winter months.

Uygurs traditionally serve roast whole lamb to honor guests and celebrate festivals and special occasions.

The lamb is marinated or seasoned prior to grilling. It takes three to four hours to cook the lamb that’s rotating on a rack to ensure even cooking on all sides. The final result should have crispy skin and tender, flavorful meat.

After the lamb is cooked over fire, it’s displayed in front of the guests and the most honored guest is invited to cut and eat the first piece before the rest of the lamb is served.

Xinjiang mutton skewers are popular nationwide, and you can easily find them in Shanghai. The hearty chunks of mutton should have the appropriate lean to fat ratio, which is usually at 70 percent to 30 percent.

The mutton can be skewered with bamboo or metal sticks, but many people prefer the thicker salt cedar branches, which is a more local and authentic experience.

Cumin and chili powder are the traditional seasonings used on the mutton skewers, but variations in other regions may add more diverse spices to cater to local tastes.

The mutton skewers in Xinjiang come in larger portions and the freshly grilled meat plus crusty nang bread and a beer is an ideal local meal.

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Skewers of grilled food are signature delicacies at night fairs in Kashgar, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

In Sichuan Province and Chongqing, the land of spicy cuisine, grilled pig brain is a delicacy that splits people into two camps — some are crazy for it, some are scared of the very idea of eating brains.

Offal is widely used in grilling across China and ingredients such as tongue, tripe, gizzard and heart are easily accepted.

Brain is an exception, the squishy texture and undisguised presentation does require some courage.

After removing blood streaks from a fresh pig brain, it’s cut in half so seasonings can be better infused. It requires chili sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, fermented bean paste, scallions and lots of classic Sichuan spices to season the dish.

The pig brain are broiled in tinfoil bowls to preserve their shape and completeness. The smooth, creamy grilled pig brain has a similar texture to soft bean curd.

Other carnivores’ favorites include sausages, meatballs and pig feet.

In coastal regions, seafood, including many different kinds of fish, clams and shrimps, is widely used in grilling.

Grilled oysters are a signature delicacy in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province. It’s a must-try when visiting night fairs for a late night snack.

Fresh oysters are placed on the grill directly with the shells on, so the delicious juice is preserved. Minced garlic is added on top of the oyster meat for a richer flavor.

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Grilled oysters.

The locals also grill the oysters without any seasoning. The fresh, live oysters are grilled directly until the meat inside is fully cooked, then the mollusks are shucked and served with a sauce of soy sauce and mustard. This is the best way to enjoy the original, umami flavor of the oysters.

Clams are also very popular in grilling restaurants. They can be grilled with garlic and thin rice vermicelli.

Fishes like yellow croaker and saury are cheap and succulent delicacies one should not miss.

Vegetarian options

Even though grilling is mostly about cooking and eating animal protein, vegetarian options are available for people who don’t eat meat or want to go a little lighter.

All-time classics include thin po­tato slices, needle mushroom and green beans, as these ingredients not only have a desirable texture but also have minimum flavor of their own and can carry compound spices and seasonings very well.

Grilled chives is a dish that’s just the opposite, the slightly pungent vegetable becomes softer when it’s grilled and can stick to delicious sauce and seasonings because of its flat shape.

Grilled eggplant with lots of garlic is a vegetarian grilled dish that can rival meat. The super soft flesh of the eggplant is soaked with the rich sauce and the dish is perfect company for wine or beer.

Grilled eggplant.

Staples such as steamed buns, bread and rice cakes are grilled with or without sauces, too. They can give you a more filling feeling.

There are two ways to grill corn. One is to put the whole corn or large segments of it over the grill, while the other is to skew the kernels on thin sticks and grill with the seasonings. Although it’s very elegant to eat just the kernels, the thin skewers are very time-consuming to make and more commonly found in the south.

A grill can get you all set from starter to dessert.

A very popular sweet grilled dish is grilled bananas. When cooked di­rectly over open fire, the very ripe bananas can caramelize and become much sweeter and softer.

Li Anlan / SHINE

Grilled corn kernels.

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