"A whole animal roasted over live fire transports us back immediately to the most primal moment when man made the leap from being an animal that ate other raw animals and other raw foods to being the only animal that cooks, that processes food in that way, with that sense of artistry and mission," says barbecue pro Steven Raichlen, the author of numerous grilling books, including Planet Barbecue!, and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. "Everything we think of as human began with that first barbecue," Raichlen claims, including profound evolutionary changes such as increased brain size and decreased jaw size.
Roasting a whole animal is nearly always social. "One of the great appeals of roasting a whole animal or grilling a whole animal is that it is a communal activity," he explains. "You never do it for one person. It involves the whole community, and that's really important."
Of course there's the taste factor, too: "I find that meat you cook on the bone is more flavorful than meat that's been removed from the bone," Raichlen says. And then there's the way whole beasts are often eaten—with the hands. But even if you're using a knife and fork for your plate of pork, "when you cook and eat a whole animal, you are all of a sudden way back there: the Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer, engaged in the most primal human activity of all."
Raichlen took time out from the book tour for his first novel, Island Apart, to talk about some favorite whole-beast barbecue traditions he's come across in his travels, including grilled and fire-roasted cows, hogs, lambs, and poultry.
"For beef, you really have to go South America," says Raichlen. "That's where they do it the most." One of Raichlen's favorite whole-cow traditions, asado con cuero, comes from Uruguay: "They'll gut and split a whole steer and then cook it for half or three-quarters of a day, actually on the hide [or cuero], then it's cut apart or ripped apart and served." The seasoning is just salt—plus that elemental scent of wood-fired smoke, of course.
Roasted whole pigs span the globe, and there are plenty of pig-roast traditions right here in the United States (in North Carolina, where I grew up, "pig pickin'" was a fixture at cookouts, while my mother recalls the cochon de lait from her childhood in South Louisiana). Raichlen says a great place to start the whole-hog world tour is in Bali with its babi guling—a spit-roasted suckling or even full-grown pig stuffed with a spice paste of galangal, fresh turmeric, ginger, chiles, lemongrass, leeks, and other seasonings. The intensely flavorful meat is served in chunks, typically along with some of the crispy skin, long bean salad, and rice. Raichlen learned to make babi guling from a pitmaster in Bali in the mid-'90s, and the experience, he says, "sums up the sheer wonder and joy" of traveling the world of barbecue. "I woke up at five in the morning, and we were going to go out and pick the pig and kill it, and then go to the market and buy the seasoning for it and roast it ourselves," he recalls. "[The pit master] gave me the honor of putting a knife in my hand, and he showed me where to cut the equivalent of the jugular. And what was amazing about the experience is that he kind of laid his hands on the pig and made it very quiet. And there was a peaceful, mystical, feeling—not the stressed squealing and packing-house experience. It just felt like you were part of this giant cycle that included life and death."
Another of Raichlen's favorite babi guling experiences—and one that's within easy reach for any traveler to Bali—is the roast pig at Ibu Oka, a famous outdoor eatery in the artist town of Ubud. The place has been covered widely in the media, including in The New York Times and on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and from Raichlen's telling, the "fragrant meat" and crispy skin is truly worth all the press. (Raichlen shares the recipe for Oka's Whole Hog with Balinese Spices in Planet Barbecue!.)