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Food + Cooking

Whole-Animal Barbecue Around the World

Grilling expert Steven Raichlen tells Gourmet Live's Megan O. Steintrager about the tastiest big-beast feasts on the planet
Whole Animal Barbecue Around the World with Steven Raichlen

"A whole animal roasted over live fire transports us back immediately to the most primal moment when man made the leap from being an animal that ate other raw animals and other raw foods to being the only animal that cooks, that processes food in that way, with that sense of artistry and mission," says barbecue pro Steven Raichlen, the author of numerous grilling books, including Planet Barbecue!, and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. "Everything we think of as human began with that first barbecue," Raichlen claims, including profound evolutionary changes such as increased brain size and decreased jaw size.

Roasting a whole animal is nearly always social. "One of the great appeals of roasting a whole animal or grilling a whole animal is that it is a communal activity," he explains. "You never do it for one person. It involves the whole community, and that's really important."

Of course there's the taste factor, too: "I find that meat you cook on the bone is more flavorful than meat that's been removed from the bone," Raichlen says. And then there's the way whole beasts are often eaten—with the hands. But even if you're using a knife and fork for your plate of pork, "when you cook and eat a whole animal, you are all of a sudden way back there: the Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer, engaged in the most primal human activity of all."

Raichlen took time out from the book tour for his first novel, Island Apart, to talk about some favorite whole-beast barbecue traditions he's come across in his travels, including grilled and fire-roasted cows, hogs, lambs, and poultry.


"For beef, you really have to go South America," says Raichlen. "That's where they do it the most." One of Raichlen's favorite whole-cow traditions, asado con cuero, comes from Uruguay: "They'll gut and split a whole steer and then cook it for half or three-quarters of a day, actually on the hide [or cuero], then it's cut apart or ripped apart and served." The seasoning is just salt—plus that elemental scent of wood-fired smoke, of course.


Roasted whole pigs span the globe, and there are plenty of pig-roast traditions right here in the United States (in North Carolina, where I grew up, "pig pickin'" was a fixture at cookouts, while my mother recalls the cochon de lait from her childhood in South Louisiana). Raichlen says a great place to start the whole-hog world tour is in Bali with its babi guling—a spit-roasted suckling or even full-grown pig stuffed with a spice paste of galangal, fresh turmeric, ginger, chiles, lemongrass, leeks, and other seasonings. The intensely flavorful meat is served in chunks, typically along with some of the crispy skin, long bean salad, and rice. Raichlen learned to make babi guling from a pitmaster in Bali in the mid-'90s, and the experience, he says, "sums up the sheer wonder and joy" of traveling the world of barbecue. "I woke up at five in the morning, and we were going to go out and pick the pig and kill it, and then go to the market and buy the seasoning for it and roast it ourselves," he recalls. "[The pit master] gave me the honor of putting a knife in my hand, and he showed me where to cut the equivalent of the jugular. And what was amazing about the experience is that he kind of laid his hands on the pig and made it very quiet. And there was a peaceful, mystical, feeling—not the stressed squealing and packing-house experience. It just felt like you were part of this giant cycle that included life and death."

Another of Raichlen's favorite babi guling experiences—and one that's within easy reach for any traveler to Bali—is the roast pig at Ibu Oka, a famous outdoor eatery in the artist town of Ubud. The place has been covered widely in the media, including in The New York Times and on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and from Raichlen's telling, the "fragrant meat" and crispy skin is truly worth all the press. (Raichlen shares the recipe for Oka's Whole Hog with Balinese Spices in Planet Barbecue!.)

Raichlen also loves the lechon asado of the Philippines, especially at Lydia's Lechon, which Lydia and Benigno de Roca started as a stall in Pasay City in 1965 and now has outlets all over the country. The pork is marinated with lemongrass and leeks and roasted until the skin is "supernaturally crisp," then served with a sauce made from pork liver, vinegar, brown sugar, and caramelized onions.

But perhaps the coolest whole-hog preparation Raichlen has seen comes from Jamaica, where pigs are deboned, laid flat, spread with jerk seasonings, and cooked over fire. "No part of the pig is more than 4 inches from either the smoky fire or the spice paste," he says.


Baby sheep are a popular barbecue centerpiece in many parts of the world, especially throughout North Africa, Greece, the Middle East, and Central Asia. In Greece, lamb is seasoned inside the cavity with a mixture of salt, pepper, oregano, and lemons, and spit-roasted on a hand-turned rotisserie while being basted with a sauce that includes the same aromatic seasonings. Traditionally, everyone in the village takes turns rotating the rotisserie, Raichlen explains, so the meal "becomes not only something communally that you eat but something communally that you prepare."

In Morocco, whole barbecued lamb is called méchoui, and it is gutted, spitted vertically, and roasted over embers in an underground pit that Raichlen says resembles a giant tandoor. "Tandoors have been around for at least 5,000 years, and as they spread from India throughout the Middle and Near East and as far west as Turkey, they got bigger, they got smaller, they went underground, they went from being used primarily for bread to being used now for bread and meat," Raichlen explains. "They spit the whole lambs on what are essentially sapling trees that are maybe 8 feet tall, then lower them underground and roast them in this barbecue pit." A similar wood- or charcoal-burning clay oven called a tandir is used to cook whole lambs and other meat in Turkey.

Raichlen also recalls knockout whole roast lamb cooked in a tandir at a huge restaurant called Neolit in Baku, Azerbaijan. "I flew there for a 48-hour trip because I had such good Azeri barbecue in Moscow that I decided that I had to see it firsthand. And I always wanted to dip my toe in the Caspian Sea, too." Very small young lambs are marinated in a paste of ginger, turmeric, onion, cumin, and olive oil and then hung from hooks and cooked in the pit barbecue. The meat is served with a plate of colorful radishes, scallions, and herbs, along with flatbread.

And while Argentina is famous for its beef, one of the most notable whole-animal barbecue traditions there is done with whole lambs (and sometimes baby pigs or goats), which are gutted, split open, and impaled on "cruciform stakes" and placed in front of a campfire or bonfire to roast. Seasonings are "salt, fresh air, and whatever wood smoke that drifts down." (A very basic chimichurri made with dried oregano and other spices might be added after cooking.) This tradition, called asado gaucho, originated with the asadors—Argentinean cowboys, or gauchos—and a whole "fetishized culture" remains around the asadors, their estancias (ranches), and their barbecues. "They wear a certain outfit and use a certain knife, and they have certain sports and horseplay that they do while the meat is cooking," Raichlen relates."Tourists and some Argentinians will make a day of going out to one of these ranches and spending the afternoon and watching the asado." Asado can also be had in the big cities, in restaurants such as La Estancia in Buenos Aires, where whole animals and animal parts are roasted near a major pedestrian walkway for all to see and savor.


While goat is just beginning to catch on in the United States, the hardy creature has long been a source of sustenance throughout much of the rest of the world, particularly, says Raichlen, in mountainous regions. "Goats are a boon to livestock herders because the goats are so nimble and don't need flat ground for grazing," he explains. In Croatia he ate roasted goat that was simply seasoned with salt and pepper. A more flavorful preparation is Mexico's barbacoa, in which whole sheep or goats are cut into quarters, marinated in a paste of chile and pulque or mescal, wrapped in maguey cactus leaves, and roasted in a fire-heated pit. "Often they'll put a big pot of vegetables and beans under the roasting goat, and those drippings will fall into the pot and then they'll turn that into a soup," he adds.

Chickens and Other Poultry

"Whole spit-roasted chickens are ubiquitous to the point where I wouldn't know where to begin," says Raichlen, but pressed, he lists a few favorites, starting with a recipe for salt-crusted chicken cooked in a wood-burning oven that the Argentinean chef Francis Mallmann (the author of Seven Fires) shared with him for Planet Barbecue!. "When it comes out, he cracks the hard shell, and the chicken is incredibly moist," he says.

Another of Raichlen's favorite recipes for whole barbecued chicken comes from Cambodia, where the bird is spatchcocked (the backbone is removed and the bird is opened "like a book"), skewered on bamboo sticks, and grilled directly over a brazier that "looks a little bit like a flowerpot filled with charcoal."

Beyond chicken, Raichlen has feasted on whole quail wrapped in grape leaves or pumpkin leaves and roasted in embers in Uzbekistan, as well as Peking duck done over a grill in Macau. "Even in countries where the grills are tiny and can't be covered, people have figured out ways to cook whole birds," he says.