Sizzle and Spice

Hold the ketchup and relish -- ethnic flavors are the hottest thing on the grill this year.

The Global Grill

May 30, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Get ready for a surprise in your own back yard.

The hottest thing off the grill won't require the usual hot-dog relish or ketchup on the side -- unless you mix your favorite condiments with mango-ginger-lime mojo or maybe Thai fish sauce and cilantro.

Ethnic foods are sizzling this season. The trend is so hot it's penetrated that distinctly American institution, the backyard barbecue, land of propane- and charcoal-fed flame, smoke and tong-wielding men dressed in silly aprons.

These foods are "the biggest thing in barbecue right now," says Dave DeWitt, editor and publisher of Fiery Foods and Barbecue magazine and a longtime industry observer. "Manufacturers are always searching for an angle, and they've found one with ethnic flavors."

When the makers of Weber grills surveyed a group of leading chefs, food writers and cooking teachers last year to get their predictions for the barbecue industry in the 21st century, the pros identified no fewer than 10 different ethnic cuisines as the ones to watch, including Mexican, Tuscan, Greek, Chinese, Thai and Caribbean.

A wide variety of ethnic spice rubs, marinades and sauces, all designed for the grill, already have hit grocery-store shelves. Even Heinz North America, maker of the famous ketchup, has gotten into the act. In March, the company released the Mr. Yoshida's line of sauces that can be used on the grill.

"We see it as a huge opportunity that hasn't been tapped," says Michael Mullen, a spokesman for Heinz.

In recent years, Weber-Stephen Products, manufacturer of Weber grills, has sponsored contests to find the best Asian and Mexican barbecue recipes. Betty Hughes, a company spokeswoman, says the emerging ethnic market is considered crucial to Weber's future. "We have a lot of interest in all types of ethnic foods," she says.

Cookbook author Steven Raichlen, the Baltimore native whose best-selling 1998 book, "Barbecue Bible," surveyed the grilling tastes of no fewer than 30 countries, believes the trend was inevitable and is no mere passing fad.

"There's a real globalization of the American diet going on, particularly with the emerging Latin influence," says Raichlen. "I came up in the steak and hot-dogs generation of grilling. But that's changing now."

It's no secret, of course, that America is becoming more diverse. In the past decade, the Hispanic population has increased by 13 million people to a total of more than 35 million, according to recent Census results. For the first time, Latinos surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group.

Add to that the more than 10 million Asians, nearly 400,000 Pacific Islanders and the 6.8 million Americans who consider themselves members of two or more races.

But it's not just immigrants bringing their outdoor grilling traditions to the United States from places like Korea or Indonesia. It's also Middle America discovering the joys of cooking satay and quesadillas.

"The reason people barbecue is for flavor, and ethnic foods have more flavor. It just makes sense that the two things would merge," says Donna Myers, spokeswoman for the Barbecue Industry Association.

And no country barbecues quite like the United States, where three out of four households own at least one grill (and two of five own two or more). Last year, backyard enthusiasts lighted up the briquettes, or gas, or turned on the electricity and grilled an estimated 3 billion times.

With so much grilling going on, it makes sense that even the most die-hard meat-and-potatoes type of barbecue owner may want to try something new.

"While a lot of our standard American traditions are great, there comes a point where you're looking for more variety," says James Purviance, a Napa Valley-based chef and food writer. "Warmer climate countries have a lot to teach Americans about flavor combinations and techniques. It only makes sense for us to enjoy that."

Purviance is co-author of "Weber's Big Book of Grilling," (Chronicle Books, 2001, $22.95), a survey of barbecue foods from lemonade to sea bass. It is heavy on ethnic flavors -- the steak chapter includes versions with salsa verde, peanut-curry and a Thai steak salad.

"Grilling is grilling. It's not a complicated way to cook," says Purviance, who first developed a feel for foreign grilling during a year in Indonesia. "In other countries, a lot of grilled food is street food -- like satay. They need to cook quickly."

For Americans, grilling has long been about entertaining family and friends. Since the 1950s, the stereotypical barbecue image is of Dad standing over the grill, a beer in hand and the guests standing around him, while Mom is in the kitchen pulling the rest of the meal together.

But in the last decade or two, grilling has become commonplace. The popularity of gas-fired grills has made it convenient -- and surveys by the barbecue industry show more people grill more foods more often.

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