Now that the height of summer has descended upon the UK (well, sort of), many of us will be filing out into the back garden for a traditional barbecue faster than the British weather can catch us. For other countries around the world, particularly those blessed with longer lasting sunshine than the we, humble barbie fare has many mouth-watering variations and interpretations. Dining al fresco is a central part of summertime all across the world, with or without the grill.
Braai is the African translation of barbecue – a tradition which is so close to the hearts of South Africans that “Braai4Heritage” is a treasured part of the National Heritage Day holiday. It’s customary to celebrate this day by having small braais with friends and family. The braai itself isn’t far from British barbecue, apart from food being smoked with wood embers instead of coal to give it a distinctive woodsmoke flavour.
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The main difference, though, comes with the delicious sides. Braai is regularly served with a type of thickened corn porridge called pap, while in Cape Town, it’s sometimes dished up alongside grilled cheese, tomato and onion sandwiches.
Over in Arabia and the East Mediterranean, shish taoouq is the summer meal of choice, grilled outdoors – a practice known as mangal – where it’s common to hold large gatherings in gardens or picnic areas, with an emphasis on community. Kebabs of beef, lamb and chicken are commonly served with fresh pitta bread, tahini, hummus and tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad of tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint and bulgur. Tabbouleh is also commonly served with mezze, an appetiser platter which consists of many delights often including Kalamata olives, halloumi cheese and falafel. In Lebanon, the custom is also for mixed nuts to be laid out for guests to eat throughout the meal.
China has a variety of taste bud-tingling dishes for the summer months. Chuanr originates from the Xinjiang province, and is comprised of small, charcoal-roasted pieces of meat served on skewers. In recent years, chuanr has seen a surge in popularity as a street food dish across China. In Hong-Kong, honey is a key ingredient, commonly brushed on the meat when it’s
almost finished cooking.
Charcoal-roasted chuanr: These Chinese kebabs originate from the Xinjiang Province (Image credit: By N509FZ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
As well as chuanr, Chongqing hotpot is also an unusual summer dish, a tongue-tingling spicy stew filled with Sichuan peppercorns and scarlet chillies that originates from the province of the same name, the hottest in China. Whilst eating spicy food in summer seems counterproductive, Chongqing hotpot actually makes dinner guests sweat to keep cool in the sweltering heat.
All the way back to the 18th century, Spain’s national dish paella is habitually cooked in the open air at gatherings and special occasions. Paella is a rice dish which is cooked in a large, wide and shallow pan across an open fire, and, unusually, often eaten directly out of the pan by all the guests. Anyone who has ever tasted paella, from the original Valencian chicken and rabbit variety to the popular seafood alternative, knows it’s a dish worth getting together for.
In Germany, large regional ‘grillen’ festivals celebrate barbecuing, which is held close to the heart across the country. Even unexpected, rarer treats such as eel or marinated cheese are cooked at these festivals, and one odd but often sworn-by habit at these fests is dousing the grill with beer to keep down flames.
Nearby in the Alps and parts of France, al fresco cooking is popularly done directly on a hot stone at the serving table, a cooking method known as ‘pierrade’. Aside from being direct to the table, it provides the added bonus of entertainment for all the dinner guests.
Over in Northern Europe, the smorgasbord is the unparalleled king of al fresco feasting. Originating in Sweden, this is a buffet-type meal with a central spread consisting of dishes hot and cold, and plenty of them. It’s the convention to begin with the cold fish dishes, before moving onto other cold dishes, and ending with hot dishes. The food served can vary completely from Denmark to Lithuania, but at the heart of the tradition is celebration and communal dining.
Communal feasting: The Scandinavian smorgasbord embraces the spirit of sharing (Image credit: By Ernst Vikne (originally posted to Flickr as Lots of good food) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Food brings people together all over the world, and the summer months provide ample opportunity to gather and enjoy a great meal in great company. Why not step out of your comfort zone this summer and do your barbecue a little differently? Or… skip the grill altogether?