From kebabs to satays, skewers cross cultures
Signs you’re a carnivore: the word tofu never crosses your lips. You sprinkle bacon bits on your ice cream. Meat on a stick makes you weep with joy. And you can out-eat Kurshid Khan, owner of Simba’s Grill (825 Denman Street; 7413 Edmonds Street, Burnaby), who once inhaled 500 finger-length skewers’ worth of meat with the help of two friends. And that was a snack.
Khan hails from Kenya, where makeshift food stands sometimes use old bicycle spokes as barbecue skewers. “You keep on eating the sticks, and when you’re finished they just count how many sticks you have” in order to determine what you owe, explains Khan in the kitchen of his Denman Street restaurant.
At his restaurants, Khan uses bamboo skewers, threading them with a variety of halal meat, including lamb and chicken. He opens a fridge to show skewers of beef tenderloin that he’s marinated in a mixture of garlic, ginger, olive oil, salt, and dried hot red pepper. That last ingredient gives the meat a spicy kick that can be cooled down with yogurt or cranked up with mango hot sauce or habanero hot sauce.
Khan’s East African–style barbecuing blends flavours from Africa, India, and the Middle East. These regions are known for their kebabs, largely due to the influence of Islamic culture, which helped spread kebabs to various parts of the world. At the Afghan Horsemen Restaurant (202–1833 Anderson Street), patrons lean back on embroidered cushions and salivate as they await their Kebab Platter Delight, which features chicken breast, lamb, and beef shish kebabs, all halal, along with other items like hummus and batter-fried potatoes called pakawra (it’s impossible to eat just one).
Here, the spicing is milder. Over the phone, executive chef Razia Nasiri describes how she cuts lamb leg into inch-and-a-half cubes and marinates them for 24 hours in garlic, lemon juice, onion, pepper, salt, and canola oil. After soaking the wooden skewers in cold water for half an hour to keep them from burning, she loads them with meat. Nasiri says Afghans eat the meat on its own, but that her customers like to dunk theirs in chaka, a sour cream and yogurt dip, for extra flavour.
Joseph Boon, chef at Spice Islands Indonesian Restaurant (3592 West 41st Avenue), explains that satays came about when Arab spice traders visited Indonesia, bringing their kebab culture along with them. Indonesians modified the kebabs, going heavier on the spicing. While there are countless kinds of satays, Boon says “the most popular are the Javanese versions, which tend to be sweeter.” For example, his chicken satays are marinated in palm sugar, dark soy sauce, onion, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. Diners can dip them in a sauce of peanut butter, kaffir lime juice, palm sugar, pepper, and garlic.
You could also try to beat Khan’s record at Zakkushi (various locations), where yakitori (grilled chicken) reigns supreme. “People in Japan just eat them like a lollipop,” says Yuki Ikeda, manager of the Kits location, during a phone chat. The secret to the distinctive smoky taste is bincho charcoal, which can get insanely hot.
One popular yakitori variation is tsukune: ground chicken with a binder of egg yolk and yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) mixed with salt, pepper, and black sesame seeds. Cooks brush house-made teriyaki sauce on the skewer before it hits the grill; a few minutes’ cooking is all it takes to caramelize.
Ikeda recommends ordering about 10 skewers per person so that you can try some of the more adventurous ones, like hatsu (chicken hearts) or aspara maki, thinly sliced pork belly wrapped around asparagus. After grilling the latter, Ikeda says, “The fat is almost gone and it leaves a crunchy texture.”
If the carnivore in you still isn’t sated, you’ll definitely get full at Samba (1122 Alberni Street), an all-you-can-eat churrascaria (Brazilian steak house). General manager Maurio Ramos sits down with the Straight to talk about the churrascaria’s origins in cowboy culture. He explains that Samba servers dress in the red neckties, white shirts, and waist sashes traditionally worn by roaming Brazilian cowboys. These passadors (meat waiters) circulate with massive metal skewers, which they carve directly onto diners’ plates.
Samba imported a monster barbecue machine from Brazil that can accommodate an impressive 52 three-foot-long skewers at a time. While lunch isn’t too much of a meat frenzy, with servers offering pork, beef, lamb, chicken, and sausage, dinner features a dozen different meats, such as buffalo, ostrich, and beef tenderloin. Seasoning is simple, especially for the red meat: just some coarse salt rubbed in after the meat is lightly seared on the grill. After 10 to 15 minutes of cooking it’s done, and diners can fight over who gets the first salty, charred slices off each skewer. Then, they can waddle home.