Chinese Barbecue

Every country has a form of barbecue. A video produced by PBS’ It’s Okay to Be Smart even argues that cooking food was as socially important as it was calorically in terms of evolution. While they stress the scientific concerns, as a student of humanities, I cannot possibly downplay the social elements of cooking.

Their argument was that the primary benefit of cooking to humanity was molecular. Cooking meats, vegetables or fruits denatures the proteins, fundamentally changing their nutritional properties. Eating cooked produce gives us more calories (much more, in fact) so that humans can spend less time foraging for food, and more time to use our big brains.

It also gives us more time to do things…like cooking together. I’d like to think this was a self-fulfilling process, this whole cooking-for-more-calories-so-we-can-cook-more-together thing. Mankind goes out to hunt, brings it back, cooks together and shares stories. Thus, we developed the capacity for language and more cooking. I might be missing a few evolutionary steps. Perhaps.

Creating food brings us together, physically and figuratively. Anyone who’s been to any form of an outdoor cookout can confirm, and those who haven’t are missing out dearly. There’s umpteen ways to barbecue. In Boston, it’s a clambake. In Portugal, it could be a leitão. In Brazil there’s churrascaria. In Russia, there’s shashlik. Korea has their own barbecue, Japan has smoked eel among other things, southern US states have various forms of BBQ, and so forth. And of course, you can always get shrimp on the barbie in the Land Down Under. (There’s other countries in this world, certainly, but I’ll restrict the list.)

As for the difference between grilling and barbecue, it’s a semantic matter. In short, who cares? In long, grilling is a specific form of cooking that involves a grill. Barbecue is more inclusive and could include smoking, grilling, baking, roasting, etc. The more important thing (in my view) for barbecue is its inclusivity.

But most important for BBQ is its ability to equalize society. There’s a saying that in NYC, that the subway is the great leveler. All rungs of society partake in the adventure that is riding the New York subway. Rich, poor, black, white, tall, short, female, male and everything else. In Mexico City, the joke is that the two levelers are tacos and earthquakes. Everyone eats tacos on the street, both upper and lower class alike, and when an earthquake comes by, we all know what happens then

Barbecue is an egalitarian event, one where it’s first-come-first-serve at the grill. One where everyone shares drinks, food and stories. It’s one where the solitary rule is make sure the cook gets some food. These events are universally understood and wonderfully cherished.

China is no exception to cookout culture. Grabbing BBQ and eating cheap food and light beer on plastic furniture is absolutely integral to Chinese society. In fact, the plastic furniture is to say nothing of the quality of the food, as some of the best food I’ve ever had, has been atop flimsy plastic table cloths and wobbly chairs in the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese barbecue can hold stories that are among the most mundane or the wildly unorthodox. You want to meet up with coworkers? BBQ. You need an excuse to down some Tsingtao beer? BBQ. Everything is closed in town? BBQ. The more obscure the location, the better the moments.


Throwing up in a parking lot.

The Chinese like to drink. Alcohol. A lot. Going to Chinese barbecue demands drinking. Depending on  who you go with – a lot of drinking.

Once, I was invited to barbecue with myriad strangers and one loose acquaintance. Never one to turn down a random, potentially life-changing event, I accepted and off I was to BBQ. The neat part was that the location of the barbecue wasn’t even close. We drove for an hour in a direction in Foshan, China I’d never seen. We drove clear out of the two districts I normally hung out in and went into the boonies.

Through the unlit darkness we drove on, until we came to a parking lot, with seemingly no businesses in sight. We parked in the middle of the lot and got out. Confused as I didn’t see a single store front, I realized that the barbecue was set up, conveniently, in the middle of said parking lot. And there was the setting. One hour from city center in a parking lot.

And then I realized I was by faarrrrr the youngest person there. Everyone was easily 50 or older. If you understand any part of Chinese society, you will know there lingering remnants, vestigial bits of Confucian order still manifesting their way in society. One of these is customs regarding age.

Filial piety dictates you must respect your elders, and while I think this element is played up too much by foreigners regarding Chinese society, it still rings true, especially for drinking baijiu, the popular Chinese alcohol.

In short, if an older man asks you to drink, you drink. If he asks you to drink a lot, you drink a lot. If he asks you to drink more, you drink more. You can see where this is headed.

I’ve seen many a night end early for some poor soul, slung on the shoulders of two willing (or at the very least, available) friends. They were asked to drink too much, and home they went.

Unfortunately, this was to be my night; as the sole laowai, far from both his American and Chinese homes in a parking lot, I was asked to drink far in excess of my abilities. Baijiu is a potent liquid, and a handful of shots will render you light and giddy, guaranteed. The quantity requested of me that night would render you heavy and grounded. You can guess the end to this one.

They like baijiu thiiiiiiiis much. (Blurry image conveniently metaphoric.)

Brother-in-law’s birthday party

After work, my buddy and I used to like grabbing a drink at a convenience store, which I promise is a totally normal thing in China. 7/11s do better business than some bars in the same area. Scouts honor, that’s true.

The type of convenience store we hit up was a bit grungy, but the owner liked us. (I’m not positive since he emoted nothing, ever, to no one, but I like to imagine he did.) It had an overhang and we could just stay amongst the shadows in city center, people watching. It was awesome

One day we started playing two-player Asshole. (I could’ve worded that sentence differently, but I chose not to. It’s a card game, I promise.) As we’re playing, a random Chinese onlooker stared at us for 10 minutes and then asked to join in. He spoke not a lick of English, and pushed my Chinese playing card vocabulary to the max. He caught on in seconds to the game, probably because Google reveals this was originally a Chinese game.

In any case, we play a round, he wipes the floor with us, and then invites us out to a barbecue because his brother-in-law was having a birthday party. Stranger’s brother-in-law’s birthday party in a place I’ve never heard of? I’m in!

We get to the barbecue and everyone is plastered, with the probable exception of two young children, who were running around barefoot everywhere. On top of peanut shells and trash, and not no one cared at all. All sorts of meats and veggies: chicken wings, chicken breast, chicken heart, chicken kidney, leek, eggplant, potato and possibly one other part of a chicken. Both cheap beer and time flowed, and there we were singing happy birthday in Chinese to a man I just met.

Post game drinks. I love soccer. I lot. And when I got to China I wanted to keep playing. And fortunately I found that it was super easy to do so in the Middle Kingdom. The culture is as strong as the quality is bad. Being an inherently social game, the community was very close, and after playing, we’d get together often.

Living in Zhuhai, bordering Macau, there was a large international community, including Portuguese, Brazilians, Chinese, British and American groups. We’d use Chinese uber and get to a random barbecue storefront to eat and chat the night away. It’s an awesome experience

Often, because we played so late and got home around 11, we’d be starving and would want just a quick snack. It was super easy to just grab a mystery chicken part and some drinks before heading to bed.

American barbecue in Beijing. Same thing really.

Quality of the food

Chinese barbecue, and Beijing’s in particular, has a bad rap for numerous reasons.

One, they’ve been seen reusing bad oil. In particular, there are people who collect oil by skimming it off the streets, whether it’s actually cooking oil or not. They will literally collect in front of people, put it in the trucks and then sell it off to small vendors. That’s clearly dangerous.

Two, there are many shouts that barbecues use rat meat, with great evidence provided. In Beijing, lamb skewers often contain rat meat. As to whether I, myself, have had rat, cat or dog meat, I cannot answer in the affirmative with any genuine certainty. I certainly hope I haven’t.

That being said, some Chinese barbecues actually have some of the best food I’ve ever tried. On the coast, most include one of my favorite snacks anywhere: dried squid. The street vendors shred a squid by hand, mix wasabi and soy sauce and create a smile on my expecting face. Delightful snack.

By the sea, there is also all sorts of truly delicious creatures, including mantis shrimp, normal shrimp, crawfish, scallops, mussels, clams, and a litany of fish. (Marine biologists might claim this list is non-exhaustive; they might be right.) These dishes almost always include gluttonous amounts of garlic, ginger, green onion and soy sauce; they also never fail to please.
In short, like my list of sea critters, there is no end of stories regarding barbecue. It’s a truly wonderful experience, and part of the shared Chinese culture. If you ever find yourself in the world’s most populous country, do yourself a favor: find a friend and grab some BBQ!

Let me know what you think in the comments below! Have you ever been to Chinese barbecue? Let us know!

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

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