Every culture on earth seems to have its own distinctive take on the ultimate summer pastime - and in America's most diverse neighborhood, nearly all of them come together. One reporter goes around the world in 80 bites.
Author Chris Erickson Photography Sasha Nialla
" HELP YOURSELF," THE STRANGER SAYS. BINGO.
I’m barely five minutes into an odyssey of discovery through the grills of Queens, New York, and there they are, the words I’ve been hoping to hear. In this case they’re coming from Xiaodong Zhang, who’s gesturing toward a plastic bag full of chopsticks as he and some friends cluster around a cast-iron grill plate sizzling with thin strips of marinated beef, chunks of sea bass and a heap of mushrooms, onions and cilantro. A small plate is offered, and I take a bite.
For those unfamiliar with the territory, Queens, the largest borough in New York City, is statistically the most diverse place in the United States and very likely the planet. It’s less a melting pot than a kaleidoscopic jumble of cultures colliding and coexisiting—a place where well over 100 languages are spoken, half the population is foreign-born, and it’s not uncommon to see a Polish butcher shop, a Chinese herb vendor, a Mexican grocery, an Irish bar and a Greek gyro joint on the same block.
Love may be the universal language, but grilling runs a close second. Cooking meat over an open flame is an activity that has bridged cultural divides since the first caveman dragged a wildebeest home to his Weber. So as outdoor cooking season arrived and my thoughts turned to what to grill and how to grill it, I had a thought: Why not pay a visit to one of Queens’ premier picnicking spots—a strip by a small lake at the southern end of Flushing Meadows Corona Park (home to the 1964 World’s Fair)—and see what’s cooking?
This is how I came to be crouching on the grass with a pair of chopsticks in hand, eating the aforementioned beef (remarkably tender, with a subtle heat) and learning a bit about Chinese barbecue. “It’s street food,” says Lei Liu, who is tending an adjacent grill stocked with skewers of lamb coated in cumin, red pepper and salt, a style common to China’s southern provinces. Hailing from the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, Liu, 28, emigrated five years ago to study.
“On the street you see this kind of thing everywhere, people selling ten skewers at a time,” he says, noting that “small bites” are a hallmark of Chinese cooking. “You enjoy the flavors that get into every piece of meat.”
Enjoy them I do, along with a taste of a purple sweet potato, roasted in aluminum foil.
Moving on, my eye alights on a distinctive grill—a boxlike stainless steel trough designed for skewers. Two men hover nearby, cooking chicken and beef kebabs alongside skewers of cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. Approached by an inquisitive visitor, they immediately offer a tutorial.
“This is traditional Uzbek shish kebab,” says Anton Bulochkin. “This is No. 1.” As I start in with questions, he leads me over to a picnic table where some dozen friends and family members are gathered.
“First you eat, and then we talk,” he says. “And before you eat, you drink.”
I spy a bottle of Johnnie Walker at the far end of the table, and I begin a quick calculation, weighing my reluctance to offend my new friend with my reluctance to pass out on someone’s picnic blanket.
As it happens, though, the beverages are quickly forgotten, and I set to swooning over the chicken kebabs, cubed on the bone, which are fabulously moist and flavorful. I eat them with non toki, a crackerlike Uzbek flatbread that is eagerly proffered (“Try, try, try”) and some tangy marinated carrot salad. Another Uzbek specialty?
“Korean,” says Bulochkin, though he and the others brought a taste for it from their homeland, where a fair number of Koreans live.
I ask him what makes Uzbek kebabs so good.
“The soul of the people,” he proclaims. Good answer, but in pursuit of more tangible tips, I ask his friend Kobich (“only one name”), a shaggy-haired guitarist, what he marinated the meat in. Salt, onion and cumin, he says, plus—secret weapon alert—“a little seltzer,” for added tenderness.
Next stop, cow-crazy Argentina. I arrive there via a nearby grill loaded with heavy-duty slabs of beef, over which Claudia Mendoza sweats in the radiant heat as gaucho music plays on a nearby boombox.
“In Argentina, our favorite food is barbecue,” says Mendoza, a warm and youthful expat who works in the accounting department at Columbia University. She’s out to celebrate her husband Marco’s birthday with a dozen or so friends from disparate points on the globe, many of them fellow marathon runners. Her steaks have been custom-cut in Argentinean tira de asado style—a few inches wide and a few inches thick, and attached to a ladder of cross-cut sections of rib bone. She’s prepared them in the minimalist native fashion, with just an application of coarse kosher salt.
“You want to try?”
Indeed I do. Someone hands me a plate, while another friend pours me some red wine. Taking a hunk of beef along with a sausage link, I add a key adornment: Mendoza’s homemade chimichurri sauce, a ubiquitous Argentinean condiment. The results are amazing, the tangy sauce a terrific counterpoint to the beef’s dark salty char and its tender, fatty interior.
Thanking them and sauntering along the lake, I wonder if anyone will manage to challenge the Argentineans when it comes to primacy in the pit. I don’t have to wait long for an answer. Standing by a mound of mammoth skirt steaks, which are soon to feed a hungry soccer team, Mariano Brun presents a contender: the Uruguayans.
“We are the originals,” he declares. A gregarious, deliberate sort who left Uruguay to seek his fortune 21 years ago, Brun has prospered in the equities market and now supports new immigrants through the Maria Luisa de Moreno International Foundation, which sponsors the soccer team. “I’ll never forget, when I was eight or nine years old, one morning my grandfather called me over and said, ‘Bring me that cow.’” Brun watched as his grandfather dispatched the animal with a knife and used a horse to hoist it up with a rope and tie it to a tree. Then he lit a large fire, and set to cutting the cow up into large sections.
“That night we had a big party for their fiftieth anniversary, with more than seventy people,” he goes on. “So that’s what we try to do here, have a party.”
The beef skirts—four or five big slabs—aren’t yet ready, so he brings me a sandwich from a huge pile on an adjacent picnic table, a link of coarse chorizo, split down the middle and loaded with chimichurri sauce, on crusty bread. “It looks great,” I tell him, “but I’m a bit full, to tell the truth, so maybe just a little…”
He gives me a hard look, albeit not without a twinkle in his eye. “You gotta eat it,” he says. “If you don’t, you got problems.”
Remembering the fate of his grandfather’s cow, I comply. And with no regrets. I even manage to devour a plate of sweet natilla, a flanlike custard made by some Colombians in the group, who’ve also contributed the plantains that lie on the grill. (That’s as far as Brun is willing to go in giving them grill privileges, though: “They know coffee. We know meat.”)
I’ve consumed at least a pound of red meat at this point, so when I detect the aroma of seafood, I’m curious to know who’s laid out their grill with shrimp, mussels, squid and a whole fish, as well as hot dogs and slabs of marinated pork belly.
Welcome to the Philippines. “This is typical Filipino grilled food,” Michael Cordero tells me, as he sets about the delicate operation of flipping the fish. That includes hot dogs, which are also popular in his native country, as is practically anything else that can be prepared over glowing coals.
“On a day like this, Filipinos love to go to the beach or to the park and do some grilling,” says Cordero, a physical therapist and one of about 15 young Filipino friends—many of them occupational or physical therapists— who’ve gathered in the park. I eye the pork belly, which gleams alluringly. Cordero’s friend Edwin Gagaring marinated it in a mixture of pineapple juice, soy sauce and pepper, and the resulting salty-and-sweet glaze is terrific on the fatty pork.
It’s a side dish that puts the Philippines on my culinary map, though: Cordero’s “vinegar shrimp.” Shrimp sliced lengthwise and soaked in sugarcane vinegar with red onion and chunks of fresh ginger, it’s a tart treat reminiscent of ceviche that will be on the menu at my next barbecue.
After dropping in on an exuberant group of Trinidadians (jerk chicken) and some Ecuadorians—who speak little English but are quick to give me enough grilled pork and morcilla (blood sausage) to feed me for another day—the sun is dropping beneath the horizon and I’m about ready to follow suit. But spotting an orange glow atop a hibachi, I summon the energy for one more stop. Tandoori!
As Pakistan native Abid Khan mans the grill, his wife Iqra gives me the lowdown on her marinade, a bath of yogurt, vinegar, garlic, ginger, green and red chilis and masala spice. Pakistani tandoori is a bit more fiery than its Indian counterpart, she says, and sure enough, the wonderfully moist chicken has an assertive, creeping heat. She has a favorite method for cutting the burn, she adds, offering me a plate of…ketchup?
Not a condiment Pakistan is known for, exactly. But as I spread some on the chicken, I’m reminded of something I learned from Brun about balancing tradition and assimilation. I’d asked why he used coals instead of cooking over wood logs, Uruguay-style.
“That,” he said, “we do American-style.”
Brooklyn-based writer CHRIS ERICKSON is seriously considering going on the Master Cleanse diet.