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Grilling on the Rim : Barbecue: The Asian Palette

October 13, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grilling--all year long it's a great way to cook. When the sun sets early, turn on the lights. Too cold? Bundle up. Rain? A determined griller carries on somehow. I'm thinking of the street vendor in Krabi, a town in southern Thailand, who turned out succulent meat on a stick even when his grill-cart was veiled with drizzle from a passing monsoon.

In America, the barbecue is an appliance of choice. In Asia, it can be an appliance of necessity. Third-World homes are not necessarily equipped with a range, or even a kitchen as we know it. A grill may be the only way to cook.

Then too, Asian grills can fill a room with strong aromas and smoke from the high heat required for stir-frying. Consequently, some of the wealthy have two kitchens, one for general cooking and a breezy, open area for grilling and wok dishes.

Five-star restaurants may have the same arrangement. In Bangkok, one eatery popular with farangs (foreigners) provides air-conditioned luxury up front. Orders for sate, though, are not cooked in the large, well-equipped kitchen but on a charcoal grill out back under an umbrella.

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Grilling is so prevalent in Bangkok that it seems the pollution there must have a strong charcoal element. Sidewalk vendors line busy streets barbecuing chicken, meat, squid, shrimp, fish balls, sausages, ears of corn, bananas in the peel and more.

In Indonesia, itinerant sate cooks carry grills balanced on shoulder poles. Unlike our round or large rectangular barbecues, the most efficient grill for sate is long and narrow, designed to hold the sticks in a row. The ends of the skewers extend over the sides, making it easy to turn them without getting burned.

One thinks of sate as chunks or slices of meat. But on Bali and adjacent Lombok Island, a popular variation is sate lilit --ground meat on a stick. Actually, the meat is not ground but pounded in a mortar until the fibers break down and the meat becomes soft enough to mold onto skewers. In the Balinese village of Kemenuh, cooking teacher Ibu Mas showed me how to do this. We cooked the sate on a tiny grill on the sidewalk outside the kitchen. Long enough to hold perhaps a dozen sticks, shallow enough to require little fuel (Ibu used coconut husks), the grills cost only $1.50 at the local market.

To obtain steady heat, cooks encourage the coals with whatever is handy--a fan woven from palm fronds, a wooden board or a piece of cardboard. At outdoor hawker centers in Singapore, sate grillers sometimes use their fans to create showy bursts of flame--an image so emblematic it's used in promoting tourism.

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In the Philippines, gas stoves are relatively new arrivals. Until then, the alternative was the barbecue, says Filipino food expert Joyce R. Lapus of Manila. What often turns up on Philippine grills is bangus (milkfish) wrapped in banana leaves and topped with tomatoes, onion and a squeeze of calamansi juice.

Lapus' great-grandmother founded the Aristocrat, a restaurant in Manila famous for barbecued chicken and pork, and her grandmother is the Mama Sita whose name appears on a line of Filipino seasonings. Mama Sita's barbecue marinade is composed of soy sauce, garlic, sugar and pepper. Add more sugar, and it will resemble the marinade used at the Aristocrat, Lapus promises. The truth is, the small, juicy chickens grilled at the Aristocrat are as important as the seasoning.

In Asia, menus travel. For example, in northeastern Thailand, barbecued chicken is eaten with a spicy green papaya salad pounded in a mortar, called som tam , and glutinous rice. At the Aristocrat in Manila, barbecued chicken is served with a green papaya salad called atsara and java rice tinted orange with annatto. Both papaya salads have sweet-sour dressings.

Because of their sunny climate, Filipinos have many opportunities to grill. But in a congested city such as Tokyo, where winter can be harsh, outdoor cooking is impractical. The Japanese manage by using oven broilers and range-top grills, says Matao Uwate, a cooking teacher, cookbook writer, radio personality and champion of Japanese food in Los Angeles for more than 40 years. Japanese markets here stock grills composed of a shallow pan with a grate on top. Small and easy to clean, they require little storage space.

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Some restaurants, such as Nanbantei of Tokyo, specialize in grilling over charcoal--not ordinary coals but bincho , a fine hardwood from Wakayama on the southern coast of Honshu. Bincho is expensive but burns for a long time and provides intense, steady heat. Bincho is so prestigious that restaurants display a plaque to let customers know they use it. Such a plaque--in Japanese--is mounted on the tiled wall near the grill at Nanbantei's branch in L.A.'s Little Tokyo. Similar wooden plaques list tidbits available from the grill: tsukune (chicken meatballs), chicken wings, asparagus wrapped in tissue-thin pork and slices of chicken breast sandwiched with shiso leaves.

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