At the Bayon temple complex in Siem Reap, built to commemorate the victory of the Khmers over the Thais, Raichlen found scenes of life in military camps, including depictions of clay braziers resembling flower pots with blazing charcoal and the split wooden skewers used to grill lake fish.
Eventually, he did get to Angkor Wat. What intrigued him wasn’t the crowded temple, but the parking lot across the street hosting grills stalls to feed the bus drivers, tour guides and other locals. There, he had river fish skewered with a split stick cooked over a brazier, just like he’d seen in the Bayon temple depiction from 800 years ago. The next day he explored the central market in Siem Reap then took a cooking class with Khmer chefs teaching traditional dishes at a local resort. So it was 48 hours of live-fire cooking from the street to the linen tablecloth.
One of the things he likes about barbecue is that it can be both primitive and modern. Also it’s evolving. “It has one foot in the distant stone ages and one foot in the 21st century,” he says. And that technology means almost anything is possible with a fire, an understanding of those ancient methods and some imagination and ingenuity.
In France, he learned to cook mussels on a bed of pine needles ignited by the heat. In Baku, Azerbaijan, he met Mehman Huseynov, who dips balls of vanilla ice cream in beaten egg and shredded coconut and then browns them over a screaming hot fire. In Axpe, Spain, he came across a man he calls the mad scientist of barbecue, Victor Arguinzoniz, who makes lump charcoal from oak and fruitwood logs each morning to cook grilled bread with smoked butter or kokotxas a la brasa, grilled hake throats—a fish similar to cod and a Basque delicacy.
In Morocco, thanks to an American with a Moroccan restaurant he met in Atlanta, Raichlen was treated to a tour of Marrakech where he was introduced to Hassan Bin Brik, the “grandfather” of grilling, who founded the city’s first grill parlor in 1946 and makes kofta, a ground meat patty.
In each place, he found not only history and great food, but a look at who we are. Raichlen likes to paraphrase the 18th-century French gastronome and philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. “Tell me what you grill and I’ll tell you who you are,” he says. “For me, it’s a window into a culture and a window into the human soul.”