This weekend, I certainly didn’t have to walk too far (just next door) in order to enjoy some barbeque that one would normally have to travel thousands of miles to taste. Due to its proximity to New York City that serves as an entry point to the United States for people all over the world, New Jersey gets the advantage of getting its leftovers with just a little push across the Hudson River. The area’s Hispanic population is certainly growing, not only from immigration but also from the growth of families that have settled here and now call it home, spreading and solidifying their culture and influence, especially with regards to food.
Hispanic food has long relied on the zesty and robust pairings of meat, vegetables, and legumes. Chicken, beef, and pork are the staples, along with corn, onions, peppers, potatoes, and beans. But on this ride, it’s all about the meat, and so it gets all of the love. And the one spreading all that love this weekend was Rogerio from an outfit called Gaucho of the BBQ. Asked to cater my neighbor’s huge party, I took it as opportunity to do a quick Vodka shot from the ice sculpture, grab a beer from the homemade kegerator, and mosey on up to the grill to taste and talk barbeque. The word “gaucho” refers to the our cowboy’s counterpart in the other American continent, a tradition and lifestyle that is over 400 years old. They must have been very thankful to the Spaniards for bringing horses, which made cattle ranching must easier and allowed it to spread far and wide. No longer did they have to ride sloths and anacondas to chase after the occasional lost calf. And when the day was done, they could sit back, look at the Southern Cross up in the sky, and enjoy some damn good barbeque to restore those burned calories.
But as Rogerio was only so happy to share, although we love to eat the same kinds of meats, there is a big difference between how Brazilian barbeque, or churrasco, and American barbeque are prepared. Looking down at his large collection of Brazilian-made, sword-like skewers, I knew that he was either correct in this distinction, or that the party would end very shortly and on a very, very, very bad note. The hardwood-handled skewers, laden with rows of good stuff roasting over the coals, were held over the grill, allowing the convection of the air to roast the meat. Depending on how long or how fast Rogerio wanted the meat to cook, he would lay skewers at different heights from the coals, allowing the juices to drip down onto the meat below. American barbeque relies on indirect heat to cook the meat, and by definition, is distinguishable from grilling by this fact. Many people use these terms interchangeably which makes barbequers cringe. So although, Brazilians use the direct heat from coal to cook the meat, I certainly wasn’t complaining, or arguing the point. The spices that each uses is very different as well. American barbequers tend to use mostly brown sugar, salt and whatever else seems detonate their taste buds, while charrisco tends to rely on salt and … more salt. Each piece was soaked in a generous brine or rolled in dry salt, keeping with the Brazilian tradition. Rogerio pulled out a squeeze bottle of roasted garlic and salt mixture that he put on the chicken, giving it that distinctive aroma and a nice flavorful coat. Salt, in whichever continent, is used in rubs as a way of keeping the juices in the meat where you want them to stay (until you bite into them). With a less experienced cook, the liberal use of salt could make me shrink up like a slug, but that night, it drew out the flavor of the meat and helped show what Brazilian barbeque was all about. And I wasn’t the only one that went all in. Throughout the night, people kept an eye out to see when the meat was plucked from over the coals and came over to grab some of the chicken wings, sliced sirloin, sausages, or the crowd favorite: perfectly cooked chicken hearts.
For that one night, I was Brazilian: eating the way they eat, partying the way they party, and taking part in a tradition that I hope will last another 400 years. Now if only we could get some other things from Brazil to make their way up here as well. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what things I mean.