The Origins of Barbecue

Humans began cooking meat over fire around 1.8 million years ago so the origins of barbecue belong in our distant past. However, these days the origins of BBQ – meaning meat cooked over a fire in a grill or pit and with the meat or vegetables marinated, rubbed with spices and sauces actually come from the Caribbean.

The origins of Barbeque - a neon sign with a pink pig on a brick wall with Bar-B-Que spelt out in green neon.

Barbacoa origin and the history of Barbecue

The word barbecue first appeared in a journal from a Spanish explorer’s account of his journey to the West Indies in 1526 (according to Planet Barbecue). The explorers came across the indigenous Taino people who cooked their meat on a raised grill over the fire and the Spanish called it barbacoa.

From Hispaniola, the Spanish explorers moved northwards and in 1540 there are records of Hernando de Soto experiencing a cooked feast of wild pig that was cooked over the barbacoa by the indigenous Chickasaw tribe. I would hazard a guess that most indigenous people’s cooked their food this way as did the populations of Europe prior to the stove being invented.

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Barbecuing is not easy work many hours spent over a flaming fire in the deep south with those temperatures and humidity and it is clear that in the United States African Americans were the group that managed, tended and created the BBQ traditions that we know today.

As slaves their labour was free and when slavery was over the slaves became the cheap hired labour to work in restaurants and cafes across the USA. And yes white people have BBQ’d for generations but the bulk of the tradition is down to the slaves that were bought and sold in the South.

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A word here on the origins of the word barbecue- the word barbacòa eventually made its way into English but likely had some French influence prior to that which is how the two spellings barbecue and barbeque came about. The word barbecue can be used to mean both the means of grilling food with wood or charcoal or the actual oven/stove/pit or method of fire used.

The origins of Barbecue around the World

Because barbecue is a relatively simple process using wood or charcoal you really don’t need anything fancy to build one. A pit dug in the ground, a metal grate or rack even a simple clay oven can be used to Barbeque. Around the world, most countries have their own version or style of BBQ and barbeque has evolved into a distinct food culture category.  

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36 Types of Barbeque around the world

American Barbecue

There are four distinct barbecue traditions in the United States – Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City.

Carolina BBQ

South Carolina uses a vinegar-based sauce which came from the British love of the condiment and its ability to keep the meat juicy, but in South Carolina, they tend to prefer a mustard-based sauce that originated with the French and German immigrants.

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Texas BBQ

Texas barbeque became dominantly beef-based thanks to the German immigrants that moved to the state to raise cattle. However, in Texan molasses was added to create a sweeter barbecue flavour and the meats are generally speaking grilled over mesquite giving the meat a distinctive flavour. Texas brisket is also unique to this area, the meat simply seasoned with salt and pepper is slow-cooked for hours and melts in your mouth.

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Memphis BBQ

Memphis style BBQ is mainly done with pork and it can be pulled or pork ribs. The other distinctive feature is the rub which is a dry rub massaged into the meat and containing dozens of different herbs and spices. 

Kansas City BBQ

This BBQ style was born when a man called Henry Perry opened a barbecue restaurant.  Perry preferred a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. Kansas City-style sauces are sweet and thick. The recipe usually includes a base made with tomato and molasses, and you may find brown sugar as well. The sauce is cooked into the meat or brushed on immediately after cooking.

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Barbecue around the world

Spanish Asador

Stretching back centuries to those first Spanish explorers a parrillada is a barbecue and is sometimes referred to as barbacoa in Spain. In Spanish speaking countries, the word parrillada is commonly used but you will also hear parrilla and Asado.

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In Spain, it’s not just about the meat as it tends to be in South America. Fish, shellfish, and vegetables are popular on la Brasa – over hot coals or on a Parilla, a grate or grill; a la Brasa, and a plancha, a metal hot plate set over coals.

Chile – Asado

In Chile, during the summer months, everyone takes part in fiestas which include an Asado.  The asado is always taken care of by men who are known as the parrillero or grill master.  This is a social occasion that gives communities a chance to drink, celebrate and generally catch up with each other.

The women prepare the side dishes the anticuchos (meat skewers). And the pebre, a condiment made with onion, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, olive oil, and cilantro that’s essentially Chile’s national topping and is put on all kinds of meats.

There are two main components of a Chilean barbecue, the first is the choripan, which is a small sausage served in a roll like a small French baguette and this is followed by a steak or lamb. In the southern Chilean area, the meat is dominantly lamb, but beef and chicken are also served.

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Argentina – Asado

Like Chile the asados are similar but probably by now, everyone is familiar with an Argentine steak house where cuts of beef, lamb and pork are brought to the table on skewers and you can choose your favourites.

The asado tradition comes down from the gauchos or cowboys of the early 1800s. The meats usually include pork and beef sausages, blood sausage, and steaks, which are served with chimichurri sauce for flavour. Argentinean chimichurri is made with chopped fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes. 

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Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua – Churrasco

A churrascaria is a type of restaurant where meat is cooked in churrasco-style which basically means barbecue. Similar to the Argentinian asados the cuts of meat are marinated with garlic and lemon or lime juice and marinated for hours. They are then simply seasoned with salt and pepper and then charcoal grilled. 

At a Brazilian Churrascaria, a fine yuca flour called farofa is served on the side to sprinkle on top of the meat and a condiment called Molho Campanha made with red and green peppers, onion, and tomato and the drink of choice is a Caipirinha.   

Mexico – Barbacoa

Mexicans love barbacoa, which is generally mutton or pork slowly cooked over an open flame, or more traditionally in a fire pit. Also, as in many other places in Latin America, there is a strong tradition in Mexico of preparing pollo asado which is chicken on mesquite charcoal-fired grills after the chicken meat has been marinated overnight in an often secretly guarded recipe adobo sauce. Adobo is of paprika, oregano, salt, garlic, and vinegar to preserve and enhance the flavour of the meat.

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Korean – Barbecue

A Korean BBQ is a unique experience that everyone at the table participates in. The grill is usually set in the centre of the table and servers bring plates of meat and side dishes known as Banchan and then everyone grills their own food.  The meats will include thinly sliced beef called bulgogi, galbi which are beef ribs, dak Galbi which is marinated chicken. You will also see the side dishes Gochujang which is the Korean sweet and spicy sauce, fermented bean paste, sesame oil raw scallions and ssamjang a thick spicy paste.

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France, Switzerland – Pierrade

These countries have a very unique BBQ called pierrade, or Pierre chaude. The meat is sliced very thin and then seared over a hot stone plate sort of similar to Korean BBQ but with a hot flat stone as the grill. 

German barbecue

Similar to the USA’s Barbecue culture Germany calls it grillen but it never includes burgers only sausages. The German are of course famous for the sausages and their methods of infusing flavour using mustard and the way they grill meat is very Texan style BBQ.

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South African – braai

In South Africa, you will likely be asked to come to a braai that comes from the Afrikaans language. Generally speaking meats such as lamb, beef and pork are grilled on a wood-fired braaistand. These braais are like a potluck the host will tell you what meat to bring and it’s usually a party-like event.

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West Africa – Suya

Suya is a spicy meat skewer that is popular street food in West Africa. Suya is usually made with skewered beef, mutton, or chicken and sometimes kidney, liver and tripe are also used. The thinly sliced meat is marinated in various spices which includes a spice called Suya Spice or peanut cake which is a ground peanuts, garlic, ginger, salt, smoked paprika and onion powder which is used to coat the beef before barbequing Suya is served with extra helpings of dried pepper mixed with spices and sliced onions.

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Australia – barbecue

Shrimp don’t exist in Australia as they are known as prawns and yes they are bbq’d and it is called a Barbie. The Australians love a Barbie on the beach and will cook anything from steaks to lobster and prawns. Free BBQ’s are located on most public beaches and all you have to do is bring the charcoal and a light.

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Israel – Al-Haesh

In Israel, barbeque is knowns as “Al-Haesh” which is Hebrew for “on the fire. The most common is a kebab which uses chicken or steak with assorted vegetables. Most families have a small grill in the garden to BBQ with.

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Iran – Kabab Koobideh

An Iranian BBQ usually serves koobideh which is ground meat such as lamb or beef blended with grated onions and spices and then formed around a skewer. The spices will include sumac and turmeric and the kabab is usually served on a dish of Persian steamed rice dish.

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Turkey –  Mangal

In Turkey, a BBQ party or celebration is called a mangal. Families gather to cook copious amounts of meat which is usually lamb or beef cooked by the pitmaster who takes hours ensuring the meat is tender and tasty. The mangal refers to the large flat grill with charcoal and to the party itself.

Very much like an American style BBQ party, there are dozens of side dishes of vegetables and drinks like Turkish tea and coffee or if the people are attending not Muslim wine and beer is available.

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Japan – Yakitori

Yakitori is one of Japan’s favourite street foods. It is essentially chicken on a skewer which is grilled over charcoal and typically served two at a time. The chicken will be seasoned with either shio (salt) or tare (a sweet and savoury sauce).

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Japan – Yakiniku

Originally this term was used to refer to a western-style barbecue but today it refers to a style of cooking on a griddle over wood. The meats used for yakiniku are not marinated but a special sauce called tare which is made of soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, garlic, fruit juice, and sesame seeds is used as a dipping sauce.

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Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia – Satay

One of my personal favourites is satay which is usually a simply seasoned meat like chicken served with a sauce coating the meat. Sauces can vary but satay itself means a peanut sauce which is combined with garlic, sugar, ginger, salt and of course chiles.


Each Southeast Asian country has a different way to make the sauce and even though it always contains peanuts some use coconut milk or fish sauce to add flavour to the basic sauce.

Hong Kong – Char Siu

Wander through any China town such as London’s and you will see char siu that’s often seen hanging in front of Chinese barbecue restaurants. Char siu is basically long strips of boneless pork seasoned with five-spice powder, honey, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and red food colouring. They are skewered and then placed on a charcoal grill and actually, Char Siu means “fork roasted” in English.  

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China – Chuan’r

Chuan’r is actually a traditional Uyghur and since they are a Muslim community they use lamb. The lamb is coated with sesame oil, salt, pepper, red pepper and cumin and then roasted over charcoal. Other types of meat can be used from chicken to various edible insects and you will find this very popular street food in most major Chinese cities.

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China – Shao Kao

Shao Kao is the traditional food of the Chinese Spring Festival. This is skewered meat and vegetables that are coated with Chinese five-spice powder and cumin and then cooked over a charcoal grill.

Mongolia – Khorkhog

Mongolian khorkhog is a version of BBQ that is cooked over hot stones. The Khorkhog is traditionally mutton or goat cooked with potatoes, carrots, and onions. The stones are heated over the fire and then put into a large pot and the meat and vegetables are added and cooked in the pot.

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India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – Tandoori Chicken

Glorious Tandoori chicken that luscious marinated chicken cooked in an intensely hot tandoor which is a clay oven that has a charcoal fire inside it.

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The chicken is marinated in yoghurt and seasoned with garam masala, garlic, ginger, onion and cayenne. The meat once marinated is threaded on a skewer and then placed inside the pot. The result is smoky moist pieces of bone-in chicken that have a trademark reddish colour.

 Greece – Souvlaki

Souvlaki is usually a pork kebab where the pork has been marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and lots of garlic.  The meat is then skewered and grilled over wood or charcoal and when ready served with a pita and some flavourful Tzatziki sauce which is made with yoghurt which includes salt and grated cucumber.

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Russia – Shashlik

Shashlik can be cooked with any meat, but it is always marinated and the marinades traditionally include an apple cider vinegar or yoghurt base with salt, pepper, garlic and sometimes finely sliced onions.

The word “shashlik” was originally from a Crimean Tatar word “shish” which means “a spit” and “shishlik” which means “something on a spit”.

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 Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean – Kebab

Kebabs are now pretty much ubiquitous around the world but they began in the Middle East and can be made from any type of meat and vegetables that are available. They are grilled and served with pita, or rice and will occasionally be made from ground meats that are shaped around a skewer and grilled over an open flame.

Indonesian and Malaysian –  Ikan Bakar

Ikan Bakar translates to “burned fish” in Indonesia and it is a very traditional barbecue treat. It is always a whole fish that is roasted crisply on a charcoal grill and it is topped with a sambal or chile sauce and served on a banana leaf.

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Philippines – lechón

Lechón is a very slow-roasted over hot coals suckling pig. The skin is seasoned with various herbs and spices depending on what country you are eating it in. In the Philippines, the rub includes lemongrass, garlic, spices, fruit, soy sauce, coconut water. While in Cuba the marinade is the perfect combination of citrus, garlic, and spices.

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Jamaica – Jamaican Jerk

Jamaica is the heart of jerk culture and of course the countries national dish. The Jerk spice is a rub made of Scotch bonnet chiles which are eye wateringly hot combined with thyme and allspice. The meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with these 3 being the main ingredients the wet marinade is usually in a vinegar base.

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Earth Oven Barbecues

Samoa – Umu

In the Pacific Islands, they have been grilling over open pits called umus for thousands of years. The umu is an earthen above-ground oven of a kind that is filled with red hot lava rocks. Anything can be cooked in an umu but the meat or vegetables are usually coated with coconut cream.

Hawaiian – Kalua Pork

In Hawaii, they use a similar method to Samoa but it is called an imu. This is a large bbq pit that is filled with kindling and lava rock and left to heat up for hours.  The imu is used to cook most food items but the most traditional is the kalua pork. Within the pit layers of leaves are placed which will create thick steam. The whole pig is then laid on top of these with another layer of coconut or banana leaves covering the pig.  

New Zealand – Hangi

The Māori, have cooked in an earth oven called a hangi for centuries. Depending on the availability of certain meats the hangi can include everything from fish to beef, lamb and chicken.

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A hangi oven is loaded with stones which are heated and then covered in leaves to generate steam and then covered in earth to slowly cook the food to perfection. 

Tahitian Hima’a

A Hima’a is a large earth oven in which are placed baskets made of banana leaves that hold everything from sucking pigs to yams, taro, shellfish, breadfruit and any other seasonally available meat, fish or vegetables.

Barbeque has a long history and us humans love cooking over fire – so go explore all the BBQ you can and enjoy your travels seeking out new barbeque flavours.

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