Russian BBQ, by Daniel Brooks
For most of my life, my method of barbecuing has been to use charcoal, mostly in a Weber, a spherical barbecue grill common in the US. It can smoke meat as well, which I have never mastered. Instead, I usually use it to grill steaks, fast.
My Weber strategy is to stoke it up well in advance of feeding time by making a fire, using wood. Whilst everyone is imbibing alcohol, I throw charcoal on the fire. By the time the coals are ready, those being fed are in a malleable state. I present the steaks for approval and the optics. With a glass of courage in hand, I cook the steaks by flipping them often, salting, peppering and squeezing fresh lemon or lime on top. The long-and-short term results usually achieve the plan objectives.
Lately, I have switched to a Russian grill and have put one on my deck. It is replacing the Weber. This is a new, strategic direction. After a half century of using a Weber with charcoal, the Russian method of grilling, using a mangal, is gaining market entry in our household.
A mangal is designed to make shashlik, or shish kebab in the US. The skewers used in Russia are about two feet long. Meat is cut into one-inch cubes and marinated in advance. The market leader in mangal usage is pork. Chicken, lamb, beef have strong share and growing awareness. While charcoal is becoming more widespread, cooking over a wood fire has high, unaided loyalty and is normally top of mind.
Before I was a married man, I lived full time in Moscow. The city was grimy and massive. Just outside it was a vast expanse of forest land. Traffic was lighter then and usually in about an hour, I could make my way from the city into the woods. In many parts of Russia, if you stop by the side of the highway at a forest, access to the woods is unrestricted. Just wander off into the trees and fry meat, if the itch needs scratching. I’d gather a few folks, prepare a bucket load of pork, grab a few skewers and wander off into the bush. There, we’d root around for rocks. Usually, if we looked hard enough, we’d find bricks. The next step was to determine which way the wind was blowing and set up two rows of rocks or bricks to maximize air flow. Then we’d skewer the meat and cook our pork over an open fire on skewers between the rows of bricks, using wood we’d found in the forest. Seating was done by squatting down, Asian style. In the late 80’s and early 90’s we would on occasion drank samogon, homemade vodka. Either that or spirt, 100% grain alcohol that we’d carefully mix with water to avoid blindness and death. The meal would often consist entirely of meat. Vegetables might be added, entire cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and sprigs of dill. After that, I’d drive home. Those were the 90’s when driver’s licenses in Russia were not taken away for drinking a single gram of alcohol, as is practiced today. The police were amenable to agreeing upon a reasonable token of appreciation, in the event that a foreigner behind the wheel had taken in too much pork.
Time marches on. These days I have a deck and no longer wander into the woods to do my grilling. Instead, I ponder grilling at home, comparing the Russian versus American versions.
The Russian mangal is rectangular and has small holes along both sides, about five inches above the bottom of it to keep the airflow moving over the coals. It is designed with consumers in mind, to be used with skewers or a rectangular grill with a handle. First, you make a big fire in the mangal, using wood. The trick is to make the fire on the side of the barbecue facing the wind. When red coals have built up under the fire, move the wood to the other side of the grill, facing away from the wind. This leaves a layer of red-hot coals on the bottom of the cooker and the wind blowing smoke away from the cook. Hot coals can be scrapped from the burning fire over to the layer of red-hot coals in the mangal under the meat, using a flat shovel. In this manner, grilling can continue for an infinity. It is a time-tested strategy used in Russia and in many other Central Asian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian and other grilling markets in this region.
The Russian system doesn’t burn the meat as quickly as my Weber does. Because the coals are made of wood, they don’t burn as hot as charcoal. The holes in the side of the grill provide a draft, keeping the coals hot but not too hot. Normally, when making chicken, I burn the skin. Two weeks ago, I put chicken legs on my Russian barbecue, and they did not burn, even though I left them unattended as I wandered off to get a refill. Last weekend I grilled a rack of ribs on the mangal and left them unattended for a lengthy period of time. They did not burn and instead, came out tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.
An important thing about a Russian grill is that it never dies. The metal on most mangals quickly rusts. Ours, at the dacha, is on its last legs but will last for several years, or until it collapses from overuse.
A Russian barbecue stands about two feet above the ground on four legs. A griller can cook sitting down, a nice thing after a strenuous afternoon preparing the meat. After dinner, the mangal can become a fireplace. Lately, the weather in Moscow has been fabulous, for October. Last weekend, we made a big fire in the mangal and sat around until late in the evening, looking up at the stars. Soon enough, it will be cold as the north pole. Maybe I’ll give my mangal a try when it is well below freezing. If I don’t get frostbite, I will write about it.
Copyright, 12 October 2020