Food - Global grilling

Chefs Nelcir Muller of Chama Gaucha, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, and Jiyeon Lee of Sobban share their grilling traditions

For three local chefs — Nelcir Muller of Chama Gaucha, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, and Jiyeon Lee of Sobban — cooking meat with fire is more exciting than simply throwing a few burger patties on the grill. We caught up with all three and asked them to tell us about grilling traditions they experienced growing up in their native countries, Brazil, India, and South Korea, respectively. They were even kind enough to share instructions on how to re-create these ethnic-inspired cookout dishes at home.

I envision a gaucho as a South American cowboy who hunts and herds cattle in the open grasslands of Patagonia. Nelcir Muller is a real-life gaucho from southern Brazil who now owns and manages Chama Gaucha in Buckhead. Muller grew up on a farm near São Miguel do Oeste with his mom, dad, two brothers, and sister. He recalls big family dinners every Sunday where relatives and neighbors would get together for a churrasco, or barbecue, that would last all day. "My parents would wake up at 5 in the morning and start the preparations. We would gather wood, make a fire, and skewer the meats, while the ladies would fix the sides and salads," he says.

As Muller remembers it, the Sunday meal would typically start at noon with a few skewers of pork, beef, and lamb supplemented by fresh tomatoes, potato salad, steamed broccoli, apple salad, mashed potatoes, yucca, rice, beans, and seasonal fruit. Muller's mom would bring out her homemade flan, as he played soccer with other kids and watched his uncles and aunts sitting outside under the old big tree sipping on wine and Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil.

Speaking with a thick accent inside the Chama Gaucha kitchen, Muller shows me how to prepare picanha (pronounced pica-aña), a popular Brazilian cut of beef from the rump region of the cow that tastes similar to a sirloin. Growing up on the farm, Muller raised and slaughtered his own beef, but here in Atlanta he has to rely on suppliers. It's not a well-known cut. Home chefs could special-order this cut at a boutique butcher shop or try a specialty Brazilian grocery store such as Minas Emporium in Marietta. The meat must also be cut Brazilian-style, which means leaving all of the fat intact. This allows the meat to stay soft and juicy on the inside, while it's nicely grilled on the outside.

First Muller seasons the beef simply with coarse rock salt to preserve its natural, rustic flavor. In rural Brazil, farmers would dig a hole in the ground, fill it with charcoal or firewood, and cover it with banana leaves to make a roasting pit. At the restaurant, however, chefs skewer the meat on a triple-prong skewer and place it on a commercial grill, which rotates the meat slowly to ensure even cooking over open flames. The process takes around 15 minutes. Once the meat is cooked to medium rare, Muller uses all his upper body strength to lift the hot, heavy skewer off the grill. The meat is piping hot with juices running down as he carves it off with a sharp knife.


Picanha (serves 4 to 6)

?• 3 pounds of sirloin, cut into three even pieces
?• 1 ounce of sea salt

?Drizzle meat with coarse rock salt. Skewer one-pound cut on one long metal skewer in a semi-circle shape. Repeat for all the pieces. Sear meat over the hottest part of a charcoal grill for three minutes on each side. Continue cooking for another eight minutes. Cook to medium rare. Before serving, rub excess salt off the meat.

Former real estate agent turned restaurateur and James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast 2014, Meherwan Irani is the mastermind behind inventive Indian street food concepts Chai Pani (locations in Asheville, N.C., and Atlanta) and Boti (slated to open at Ponce City Market this fall). The idea behind Boti (meaning "bones" in Hindi) is to re-create the street corner stand experience of northern India and the Middle East. These nighttime hole-in-the-wall vendors, Irani says, specialize in grilling skewers of meat, slow-cooked over open flames of charcoal, while diners stand around devouring lamb, goat, and chicken kebabs served on disposable plates, often made of old newspapers. Irani remembers spending his summer holidays as a child in Dehradun, a town in northern India where his family owned a farm. "All the men of the village, including my uncle, would go to hunt every now and then," he says. "We would then have a feast of kebabs grilled outside while we ate in the garden."

During a recent visit to his aunt's place in India, he observed her use of spice was minimal, but well-balanced. Irani decided to come back and incorporate those same cooking techniques. He refined the classic Indian kebab recipe with Persian influences such as mint, fresh garlic, and pistachio to make it lighter, more flavorful, and less spicy.

To prepare Irani's lamb kebabs, we use good-quality cold ground lamb meat, coarsely mashed potatoes (for gluten-free binding), fresh herbs, and spices. We use our bare hands to shape the kebabs into thin long tubes onto the metal skewers, while the kitchen fills up with aromas of garlic, mint, onions, and cumin. The skewers are placed over a traditional clay tandoor oven fueled by charcoal and cooked on high heat for about five minutes. The kebabs are served on naan with chopped mint and a sprinkle of spicy chaat masala, although Persian steamed rice and grilled tomatoes and onions are suitable options, too.


Lamb Seekh Kebab (serves 4)

Dry ingredients
?• 1 teaspoon cumin seed powdered
?• 1 1/2 teaspoon coriander seed powdered
?• 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
?• 1/4 teaspoon kashmiri chili powder
?• 1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
?• Salt to taste
?• 1/4 cup fresh chopped mint
?• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
?• 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
?• 2 teaspoon crushed pistachio
?• 2 teaspoon minced green chilies
?• 1/4 cup minced red onion

Wet ingredients
?• 1 pound ground lamb, chilled
?• 1/4 cup boiled mashed potato
?• 1 egg, beaten
?• 2 teaspoons heavy cream

?Mix all the dry ingredients together first. Add the chilled lamb and the rest of the wet ingredients. Mix well, but don't overwork the meat. Next, refrigerate the mixture for at least 30 minutes, it's easier to shape when cold. Starting at the bottom and working your way up, press the meat onto and around long metal skewers. Bamboo skewers would work, too. Don't press the meat on too thick, a thin coat will cook quickly and stay juicy. Grill for five to seven minutes over maximum heat, keeping the lid of the grill open and turning the skewers occasionally to cook evenly on all sides. Using a paper towel, remove the kebab from the skewer, retaining its shape. Serve over rice or with naan or in a pita, with raita (yogurt), mint chutney, and kachumber (an Indian salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lime).

When chef Jiyeon Lee, co-owner of Sobban and Heirloom Market BBQ, moved to the U.S. from South Korea in 1998, she didn't speak fluent English or know how to run a business. But Lee came from a cultural background where the women did all the cooking. She learned her way around the kitchen from watching her grandmother while living in the suburbs of Daegu, the city where she grew up. Eventually, Lee attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta, and honed her cooking skills at restaurants such as Restaurant Eugene and the now-shuttered Repast.

As we walk through her vegetable garden behind Sobban, Lee tells me that Korean barbecue is typically eaten as a special-occasion family meal. Her grandmother's 60th birthday was particularly festive. "There were over 100 people and we cooked salad, soups, stew, rice, bulgogi, japche ... It was a feast I still remember," she says.

One of Lee's favorite dishes is Doenjang Gui, grilled chicken with garlic soybean marinade. Lee makes her own sauce using soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, sake, chopped garlic, and fermented soybean paste. The combination gives the meat layers of pungent, sweet, spicy, and nutty flavors. Once the meat is tenderized, we use a flat griddle to cook it evenly on both sides over medium heat. "Korean cooking is not that complicated and we cook while eating at the table," Lee says, as she flips off the chicken breast on to a serving plate.


Doenjang Garlic Chicken (serves 4 to 6)

?• 1 pound chicken thighs, breast, or wings
?• 2 tablespoons Doenjang (Korean miso paste)
?• 2 tablespoons fresh chopped garlic
?• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
?• 2 tablespoons sesame oil
?• 1 tablespoon sugar
?• 1/4 tablespoon ground black pepper
?• 3 tablespoons sake

?Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. This can be stored in the freezer for months and used in smaller quantities. Remove skin from the chicken and marinate in the liquid sauce overnight, or for at least two hours. When ready to eat, grill the chicken for five to six minutes on each side on high heat, until a caramelized exterior forms. Slice and serve family-style. To re-create a Korean barbecue experience, wrap the chicken in lettuce leaves along with cucumbers, scallions, peppers, and Gochujang (hot pepper paste).

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