’Cue The Meat
American barbecue sizzles in Singapore
For the average Singaporean, the term barbecue evokes memories of convivial gatherings around a charcoal grill upon which chicken wings crackle and pork chops sizzle. Not familiar to us are the big belching smokers that Americans, particularly those from the South, use to cook their meat.
Yet American barbecue is steadily attracting a cabal of meat lovers here, as a cluster of establishments have set up shop purveying compact menus that are never short on beef brisket, pork ribs and pulled pork.
Meatsmith, the buzzy smokehouse tucked away along Telok Ayer Street, sparked the craze when it opened in early 2015. This was barbecue smoked with an indubitably cool quotient—rockabilly tracks pumping its blacksmith shop-inspired interiors, craft beers and cocktails, and pickleback shots (that’s whiskey chased with a shot of pickle brine, for the uninitiated).
Two smokers imported from the United States are used to turn out some of the best brisket in town, served as thick strips by weight or sliced thinly and stuffed into sturdy buns. Heated by burning wood, the smokers feature a mechanism that rotates the meat like a rotisserie so that it bastes itself over the 12 to 14 hours required for it to transform into incredibly tender and succulent slabs.
Head chef Andrew Baldus describes the style of barbecuing at Meatsmith as “continental”. “It’s about being open-minded to different regions, following their methods and making it my own,” he said. “I wanted to give people a taste of American barbecue without having to travel all across the country. I’ve done those trips myself, and I took what I liked best and applied them to the menu.”
Baldus’ approach is not surprising given that he grew up near Kansas City, USA. In her book Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide To America’s 4 Regional Styles of ’Cue, Dotty Griffinth describes Kansas City as “the Constantinople of barbecue, where the pork tradition of the South meets head-on the beef tradition of Texas”.
Barbecue in Kansas City, she wrote, represents the best of both worlds. “Both geographically and stylistically, Kansas City is the bridge between Texas and Southern barbecue styles”.
The Story Of Barbecue
Kansas City, along with Texas, borders the area in the United States that stretches from the Atlantic to the Gulf known as the “barbecue belt”. Over the centuries, four distinct barbecue traditions emerged from the area, specifically Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. Pioneered by the Spanish who called their method of cooking meat over an indirect flame “barbacoa”, the technique eventually made its way to American colonies by way of Christopher Columbus when he led Spanish explorers on a northward expedition.
By many accounts, including an article by the Southern Foodways Alliance, American barbecue as we know it today really began evolving in Virginia and the Carolinas. As they did with most things back then, the British colonists adopted the Native American method of “drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire” and adapted it to their love for cooking hogs and other small animals on a spit.
To keep the meat from drying out, the Brits incorporated basting, a tradition that evolved into the style of vinegar-based sauces that are a signature of North Carolina barbecue today. In South Carolina, where French and German immigrants settled widely, barbecue became synonymous with a mustard-based sauce.
For a long time, particularly during the pre-Civil War years, pork remained a prime source of protein as pigs were cheaper to farm compared to cows. As a result, barbecuing and pork became synonymous, so that even today, purists from the Carolinas argue that it ain’t real barbecue unless there’s hog on the menu.
By the time barbecue reached Texas, where German immigrants settled and cultivated cattle, beef became a mainstay of the cooking style. In the port city of Memphis, where residents had a larger pool of ingredients to choose from, barbecuing took on sweet tomato-based sauces flavoured with molasses and peppers.
All of barbecue’s travelling culminated in Kansas City, where natives like Baldus’ father tend to be more open to different styles. “My dad used to travel the country for work and he visited this really popular restaurant called Charles Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis, found the (dry rub) seasoning they use and brought it back to cook at home,” remembers Baldus. “I typically ate more saucy ribs growing up, but I have a soft spot for Memphis ribs which are rubbed with salt and mopped with apple cider and brown sugar as they cook.”
Fittingly, pork ribs, which Baldus serves sauced at Meatsmith, are some of the most popular items on the menu, along with the brisket and smoked chicken.
The United States Of Barbecue
The barbecue of Kansas City also inspired Singaporean Jan Yeo to set up Red Eye Smokehouse in October 2015 on the ground floor of a narrow shophouse along Jalan Besar. Having lived there during her university years, Yeo decided to bring back a taste of her adopted home when she returned.
Her restaurant features a rotating menu of different cuts of meat. On any given day, diners might find Angus beef cheeks and pork hocks, wagyu tri-tips, lamb saddles, whole chickens and ducks, and pulled pork. Barbecue stalwarts like beef brisket, short ribs, flat iron steaks and chicken wings are always on the menu. Everything served here is cooked over hickory and mesquite wood chips in a smoker at the back of the restaurant.
Though her interest in barbecue was sparked in Kansas City, Yeo says she, too, tries to represent the best of the different American styles. “Kansas City style is about the pork ribs, while Memphis is about the pulled pork and Texas is famous for its brisket and short ribs. We want our customers to be able to try a whole bunch of different things.”
A month after Yeo established Red Eye Smokehouse, American Elliot Decker opened Decker Barbecue along Robertson Quay. Born in Alaska, Decker went to high school in Indonesia and Singapore, and headed for college in Austin, Texas, where he dabbled in the art of barbecue. Over the years, he’s witnessed barbecue move from the small towns of America to the cities.
“First they were sold from food trucks, where the barbecue wasn’t really tied to tradition. Those purveyors got a bit science-y with their barbecue, which captured people’s attention,” he said.
In recent years, barbecue restaurants began proliferating in big American cities like New York. So it was only a matter of time before ever-hungry modern Asian cities like Singapore caught on.
“For me, there’s only one way to do barbecue and that’s by using a wood smoker—no gas element, no electronics,” Decker said. “We use an offset smoker where the fire chamber sits on the left. You put wood in it to burn and the smoke enters the next chamber and cooks the meat.”
It’s a delicate operation in which too much or too little wood burning in the chambers can ruin a perfectly good hunk of meat. To this end, the smoker is tended to around the clock by Decker himself or a trusted team member. “I think that adds soul to the food,” he added.
Decker’s briskets, hewn from free-range Angus US beef, are cooked for up to 16 hours in the smoker, while his popular dry-rubbed pork ribs get three hours in the smoker “naked”, before they are wrapped in foil and smoked for another three hours. Anyone looking for sauce with their barbecue at Decker will be sorely disappointed. “If we’re going to stay up all night cooking the best meat we can buy, then you should be able to taste the meat. You don’t need to smother it in sauces,” he said.
Whichever way these restaurants do it, Singaporeans seem to be lapping it all up. When asked why he thinks Singapore has been taken by the barbecue bug, Baldus says, “I think it’s because it’s new and it’s all tender and succulent—Singaporeans really like those qualities when it comes to meat.”
Yeo had a simpler answer: “It’s the smell. You can’t walk into a barbecue restaurant and not want to eat something.”
By Annette Tan