Travel the world's barbecue trail and you'll encounter certain constants. Consider meat on a stick. Turks call it shish kebab; Russians, shashlik; Spaniards, pinchos; Italians, spedini; and Indonesians, sate. I call it one of the best ways to enjoy live fire cooking.
Cooking meat on a stick was the first technological advance brought to the art of grilling. It's certainly the most widespread and versatile today. Skewers range in size from the tiny bamboo toothpicks used by Koreans to grill garlic cloves to the massive wrought-iron T bars used by Argentines to cook whole sides of beef in front of a campfire.
Ingenious grill jockeys have used an astonishing range of materials to make skewers. Bamboo skewers are preferred in Asia; metal skewers in the West. Portuguese on the island of Madeira use laurel branches as skewers to make espetada (grilled-beef and bay-leaf kebabs).
In many parts of the world, skewered meats have military origins. Thus Russian shashlik is often served on a sword, a theatrical presentation that probably originated with the Mongol armies that conquered Central Asia. And the espetada echoes this military theme, taking its name from espada, the Portuguese word for sword.
Over the centuries, skewer shapes have been developed to accommodate every type of meat. An Iranian kebabi man has a veritable arsenal of skewers at his disposal, ribbons of steel ranging from / inch to 1 inch in width. The slender skewers are used for skewering firm chunks of lamb and pieces of chicken. Wider skewers ( 1/2 -inch wide) are designed to hold ground lamb and beef, which are molded on the skewers like sausages. The widest skewers (up to 1 inch wide) are used for grilling tomatoes, eggplants and other soft vegetables that would slip if threaded onto more slender skewers.
The Japanese, too, have developed an impressive array of skewers: slender bamboo skewers for grilling teriyaki; flat, Popsicle-stick-like skewers for cooking fragile dengaku (tofu); double-pronged "pine needle" skewers for holding small fish. Even chopsticks are used as skewers for grilling a popular but fragile street snack: rice cakes.
One ingenious skewer I found at a street vendor's stall in Tokyo looks like an elongated flagpole. The slender pole portion holds the meat for grilling. The wider flag section becomes a spoon for eating the accompanying rice.
This brings us to the second use of skewers. In many countries, the skewer isn't just a cooking implement; it's also an eating utensil.
Singapore's sate vendors always leave the top half-inch of a sate skewer exposed. You use it to impale the diced onion and cucumber traditionally served with sate.
But my favorite skewers are those of the edible variety, like the strips of sugar cane on which shrimp mousse is grilled to make Vietnam's justly famous chao tom. When you eat chao tom, you chew on the skewer, which releases an unexpected burst of sweetness.
The Balinese take a similar approach when they grill kafir lime-leaf-scented fish mousse on fresh lemon-grass stalks to make their legendary sate lilit. Nor is the idea limited to Asia. Consider the rosemary branches used by Italians to make seafood and veal spedini.
Contemporary American chefs are using everything from cinnamon sticks to vanilla beans to skewer grilled fruit and other desserts.
Skewer cooking may be universal, but it's not without its technical fine points. This truth will be apparent to anyone who has tried to cook shish kebab on a round metal skewer, only to have the meat cubes burn on one side or vegetables slip off into the coals.
As any craftsman knows, the first step is to choose the right tool for the job: Use bamboo skewers for bite-size pieces of chicken, seafood and meat. Use slender metal skewers for firm cuts of meat, like lamb cubes, shrimp or sausages in casings. Use wide, flat skewers for grilling ground meats or soft vegetables, like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. The latter are available at Middle Eastern and Persian markets.
When buying metal skewers, choose flat ones or squared-off edges. (Foods will slip or fall off round metal skewers.) Wooden handles are useful if you plan to serve the food on the skewer. This enables guests to unskewer the meats without burning their fingers. If serving on metal skewers without handles, in the style of Central Asia, it's best for the host to unskewer the meats.
In either case, never eat meat directly off a metal skewer. You risk burning your lips.
Vietnamese Shrimp Mousse Grilled on Sugar Cane
Makes 12 pieces, enough to serve 4 as an appetizer
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 ounces pork fat or salt pork, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 green onion, minced
1 tablespoon sugar plus more to taste
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon peanut oil, plus oil for forming the kebabs
1 teaspoon Vietnamese or Thai hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus more to taste
6 pieces fresh sugar cane, each about 6 inches long, (see note)
Coarsely puree shrimp, pork fat, garlic, green onion and sugar in food processor. Grind in fish sauce, oil, hot sauce, salt and pepper, running machine in spurts. (If using salt pork, add only 1/4 teaspoon salt.)
Taste for seasoning, adding sugar, salt or pepper to taste: Mixture should be highly seasoned. (To avoid tasting raw shrimp, grill 1 tiny spoonful on end of skewer or fry in skillet.) Transfer mixture to bowl and chill well in refrigerator.
Peel sugar cane with sharp, heavy knife or ccleaver (this is most easily done by standing cane on its end and cutting peel off in downward slices.) Cut each piece lengthwise in half. Lightly oil fingers of your right hand (or left hand if you're left-handed). Take 3 tablespoons shrimp mixture into your hand and mold it onto top half of piece of sugar cane. This will feel awkward at first, but soon you'll be doing it like a pro. Continue in this fashion until all sugar-cane pieces are coated. Recipe can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead to this stage. Place on lightly oiled plate covered with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Preheat grill to high. Grill kebabs until shrimp mixture is lightly browned, firm and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve kebabs at once, instructing guests to nibble shrimp mixture off cane. Be sure to chew cane to extract sweet juice.
Note: Fresh sugar cane is packaged by the exotic produce purveyor Frieda's, 714-826-6100, and is available at specialty greengrocers and many supermarkets. If sugar cane is unavailable, you could try grilling the shrimp mousse on fresh lemon-grass stalks or sticks of jicama.