Chinese BBQ, What’s the Difference?

A chef preparing barbecue in a busy restaurant. Photo via 晨报摄影部 on WeChat.

When I moved to China in 2020 I had no idea how big barbecue was within China. However, it isn’t the briskets and pulled pork I’ve come to expect within the United States.

Barbecue plays an instrumental part in Chinese cuisine and dining culture. I have gone numerous times to different restaurants in a number of cities both for work dinners and with my friends. The atmosphere is electric and the food is out of this world.

The foods you will find within a Chinese BBQ restaurant vary widely on what part of China the brand originates from. There are three major players in Chinese barbecue, that being Sichuan, Beijing, and Xinjiang. The majority of the barbecue I’ve partaken in originates from Sichuan, so I will be setting the focus of this article on this type of barbecue.

I’m writing this to help grant you a better understanding of the history, most popular foods, and culture behind one of China’s favorite kinds of cuisine.

An assortment of Chinese seafood kebabs ready for taking. Photo via 吃货历史观

A Meaty History

As mentioned before Chinese barbecue (烧烤) has a number of different variants. Most of the foods you will find come in the form of a kebab.

The exact history of when kebabs came to China is unknown. This style of food is closely related to nomadic peoples as they can prepare their food quickly and eat it on the go. Many researchers believe that the skewered style of food has been within China for as long as 1,800 years.

Within many ancient art pieces from the Han Dynasty ( 202 BC — 220 AD) there are visible skewers within their stone carvings.

Skewers and kebabs are often associated with Turkic people. Scholars believe that the original skewers could have been brought to the Han dynasty by the Turks via the silk road.

Another theory of the food’s introduction to China is through that of Xinjiang although hotly contested.

What we do know is that skewers, no matter when they were brought to China, have stayed a staple through time. From the Ming Dynasty beginning to cube the meat and simmer it within onion soup to the early and late Qing Dynasty, Chinese Barbecue continued to innovate and form into the food we know today.

What Will You Find in a Chinese BBQ Restaurant?

The aroma of freshly cooked, perfectly seasoned meat wafts through the air. As you step inside the roar of the patrons takes you over. Pictures of glorious meat litter the walls of the establishment. You sit down, order a case of beer and prepare yourself for some Chinese barbecue.

Firstly, meat is the name of the game just like any barbecue. Of course, you will see that standard pork belly, fatty beef, and grilled chicken kebabs that we all know so well. What you may not expect is chicken hearts (鸡心烤肉串), brains, and pig kidney.

Chicken heart skewers garnished with mint. Photo via Douguo.com

Don’t recoil until you give them a try. On a personal note, I’ll try any food and these hearts were no exception. I can say without a doubt chicken hearts are 100 times better than you’d expect. Super chewy and flavorful, if it has a nice chili seasoning I’m ready to chow down.

You can’t go wrong with some steamed and pan-seared tofu (烤摊的烤豆腐). Absolutely one of my favorite foods I’ve come across in China, it is peppered with spices and green onion. When it comes out hot it will melt these wonderful flavors in your mouth.

This tofu works as a great mouth cleanser after partaking in ten skewers of spicy pork belly. Mix this with a cold beer and it’s game over.

Pan-seared tofu with chili flakes and green onion. Photo via 泡泡茉莉酱.

You can never go wrong with some perfect pork skewers. A true one-of-a-kind flavor, it is easily the most popular item to order at Chinese barbecue, and rightfully so. Seasoned and cooked to perfection, each bite will give you an explosion of juices and flavor.

The best part is that these pork skewers are relatively inexpensive. If I go with three friends the four of us could easily polish off 100 skewers and be able to afford it comfortably. With the combination of outrageous flavor and affordability, pork skewers are definitely the main attraction for Chinese BBQ.

Fatty Chinese pork kebab seasoned with chili flakes. Photo via 中裕食品.

Along with the many foods of Chinese barbecue, beer and baijiu are synonymous with this filling outing. Washing down the vast amounts of meat, vegetables, fish, and carbs with a cold beer is something you need to experience.

However, you need to be careful. Without realizing it you could be six or seven bottles of Tsingtao beer deep without even noticing it. Not that I’ve been in that situation, I swear.

Vegetable wise you can find spicy seasoned chives, mushrooms, cucumbers, and more. These really help switch up the flavors going on in your mouth after eating so much meat. My personal favorite out of all of these are the chives. Surprisingly juicy and flavorful, you definitely need to give them a try.

Chinese barbecued chives with ground peanuts and spicy seasoning.

It is impossible to detail all of the amazing foods that you will find going to one of these restaurants. I could talk all day about the meat, vegetables, and spices that have taken over my culinary heart. There’s simply no way to do Chinese barbecue justice through one single write-up.

Besides the Food

One part of Chinese barbecue that helps it continue to grow in popularity is its communal aspects. Buying innumerable skewers, peanuts, and tofus with your friends and family is nearly a spiritual experience.

Sharing everything together from the food and drinks to stories of our lives. Of course, the food is amazing, but the people you eat it with take Chinese BBQ from a good option to eat out to a truly special experience.

I encourage you to seek out a Shaokao/Chinese BBQ-styled restaurant near you. Bring your friends or family and try something new. Who knows, maybe you’ll find your new favorite style of food.

Chinese seafood skewers. Photo via Photo via 吃货历史观.

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Detailing Chinese and East Asia culture through art, food, music, and more. Currently residing in Qingdao, China. IG: @kademaijala Portfolio: kademaijala.com

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Kade "Kuma" Maijala

Kade "Kuma" Maijala

Detailing Chinese and East Asia culture through art, food, music, and more. Currently residing in Qingdao, China. IG: @kademaijala Portfolio: kademaijala.com

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