Because they are available on almost every street corner and even in neighborhood stalls, barbecue is both popular and common. But when prepared and grilled in one’s own backyard, it transcends commonality and becomes a special occasion dish. Perhaps, it’s the amount of work involved — the cutting of the meat to the ideal thickness, the long hours of marinating, the skewering and, most of all, the grilling. I can do all and not complain except for the grilling part. That’s my husband’s domain. To this day, I have not learned how to prepare the charcoals until they reach that glowing stage. Neither do I have the patience to stand in front of a hot grill and fan the flames until my arms ache. Why not an electric grill? Because pork barbecue does not taste nor smell as good. There is an indescribable smokiness that only grilling over live charcoals makes possible.
Despite the amount of work involved, I so love home grilled pork barbecue. Everyone in my family does. There’s nothing like smelling the smoky flavors while impatiently waiting for the first batch to cook. And there’s nothing like ripping the meat off the bamboo skewers, the hot fat and juices running down my chin. If there’s a dish that I fervently wish to enjoy over the holidays, it’s home grilled barbecue. We used to have a Christmas barbecue during the first few years since we moved to the suburb. We can start doing that again this year. Hopefully. The trick is to spread the work. Marinate on day one, thread the pork into skewers on day two and ask someone else to do the grilling — you’ve done enough already.
First, we start with the marinade. I don’t use too many ingredients for the marinade, actually. It’s just salt, lots of pepper, finely minced garlic, kalamansi juice, chili sauce and a little soy sauce to give the pork that lovely reddish tinge. 7-up, you say? Oh, that’s so 70s. Contrary to popular belief, the pork need not be submerged in liquid marinade for maximum flavor — you just need the right spices and seasonings.
I suggest that you prepare the marinade in a bowl before pouring it over the pork. Some cooks place the pork in a bowl and add the spices and seasonings one by one. You can do that too but ONLY if you know the exact proportions of the ingredients. If you add a little too much chili sauce, for instance, you cannot take the excess back anymore. And you cannot cure the mistake by adding more or less of some other ingredient. Hence, mix the marinade first. Taste, taste and taste, and when you are totally satisfied with how it tastes, then, that’s the time to pour it over the pork.
But pork barbecue is sweetish, how come there’s no sugar? Oh, you add the sugar into the basting sauce, not in the marinade. Sugar burns fast. If the pork already contains sugar when it touches the grill, the likelihood that it will get burned before it is fully cooked is quite high.
So, the basic ingredients for the marinade: salt, lots of pepper, finely minced garlic, kalamansi juice, chili sauce and a little soy sauce. You can add some herbs, if you like. The sweetish flavor of tarragon is great for a barbecue. Ground mustard seeds is good too. But there’s really nothing wrong with sticking to the basics. Just find the balance that suits you. As a guide, for a kilo of pork, you will need the juice from 12 pieces of kalamansi and four cloves of garlic.
When you have your marinade, pour it over the pork and mix well with your hands to make sure that each and every piece of pork is coated with the marinade. Place in a covered container and keep in the fridge for at least 6 hours (overnight is best), stirring the pork every few hours.
Now, we thread the pork into bamboo skewers. SOAK THE BAMBOO SKEWERS for at least 30 minutes before threading the pork. This will prevent the bamboo from burning on the grill. How many pieces per skewer depends on the length of the skewer. Do not thread the pork too closely together especially if they are more than a fourth of an inch thick. If they are too close together, they might not cook evenly and you’ll have a barbecue that is burnt in some parts and still undercooked in others.
Prepare the basting sauce. This is where we add the sweetener. It can be sugar or honey. Just mix some sugar or honey with whatever remained of the marinade. Otherwise, make some additional marinade and mix the sugar or honey into it.
The traditional basting “brush” is rolled strips of banana leaves. The oldies swear that the flavor is not the same without the banana leaves. I won’t swear on that, no. I’m perfectly okay with an ordinary kitchen brush — a pastry brush, in fact.
So, your coals are hot and you’re ready to grill. Ideally, the rack should be about six inches from the live coals. Any nearer and you’ll burn the pork too fast. Any farther and the pork won’t brown sufficiently. Of course, the six-inch policy also depends on other factors like how thin your pork slices are and how much live coals you’ve got (i.e., how hot the grill is). You get the idea.
When do you start basting the pork? When they are half cooked. Do not start basting too early because it will be like you included the sugar in the marinade. Baste during the second half of the grilling and remember to baste both sides.
I know that it has become “traditional” to serve a dipping sauce with the barbecue — two, in fact, one sweet and the other one sour. I really find the dipping sauce unnecessary. If the pork has been sufficiently marinated and basted, a dipping sauce is superfluous. I kinda think that the dipping sauce is just a carry over from the fish balls practice anyway. I mean, how do you dip the barbecue in a bowl of dipping sauce without having to pry the pork pieces off the skewer and dipping them piece by piece? And if you do, then you won’t be able to eat the pork off the skewers and where’s the fun in that?
Anyway, dipping sauce or no dipping sauce, I hope that all of the above is helpful.