On Independence Day, which falls on May 14th and May 15th, thousands of Paraguayans huddle around outdoor pits, ovens and grills to slowly cook themselves meaty, patriotic dishes. An asado is about as red, white and blue as Paraguayan cuisine gets, and for true carnivores, the only real question is how to save room for seconds.
What is the difference between a BBQ and an asado?
American barbecue has its origins in the 1800s, when poor farmers would capture semi-feral pigs as food was scarce. No one is really sure where the term barbecue originated. The conventional wisdom is that the Spanish, upon landing in the Caribbean, used the word barbacoa to refer to the natives’ method of slow-cooking meat over a wooden platform. By the 19th century, the culinary technique was well established in the American South, and because pigs were prevalent in the region, pork became the primary meat at barbecues though beef and chicken both hold sway.
Barbecue allowed an abundance of food to be cooked at once and quickly became the go-to menu item for large gatherings like church festivals and neighborhood picnics. Barbecue varies by region, with the four main styles named after their place of origin: Memphis, Tennessee; North Carolina; Kansas City; and Texas.
Let’s first get one thing straight: merely throwing meat on a grill is not barbecue — at least not in the traditional sense. While novices may believe that anything covered in KC Masterpiece counts as barbecue, the real thing is cooked over indirect heat — usually a wood fire — for a really long time (sometimes for as many as 18 hours). The resulting flavor is a combination of smoke, meat juices, fat and whatever spices or rub have been added.
The asado is an event, a ritual, a ceremony. You can’t just whip out the small, round, metallic BBQ and turn on the gas like one would on the only day of sunshine like in Minnesota. You don’t just chuck a slab of meat onto a parilla (grill) and eat it trapped between two soggy bread buns (soggy from the snow that is. I was joking, there are no days of sunshine in Minnesota).
The asado takes hours. Long, frustratingly delicious-smelling hours of waiting. This wait, however is more than worthwhile. Moreover, along with the Sunday gathering of friends and family, the trip to the butchers, the divine flavors and heavenly textures, we have come to understand that it is precisely this period of preparation that turns the meat grilling into a quasi-religious ritual.
The preparation, accompanied by a glass, or two – maybe more, of beer, takes as long as the cooking. There is always a designated meat griller called the asador who prepares the embers, taking them from a pile in the corner of the grill, aligning them neatly in multiple rows on the stone once the fire’s burned out to regulate the meat’s cooking temperature.
Asado techniques and the social event of having or attending a barbecue in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, where it is very popular, usually consists of beef, sausages (embutidos), and sometimes other meats (offal), which are cooked on a grill or an open fire.
Generally, in more elaborate versions, the embutidos and meats are accompanied by red wine and salads. In more formal events and restaurants, food is prepared by a person who is the assigned asador or parrillero. In informal and relaxed settings, this is customarily done in a collective manner by volunteers.
Huge herds of wild cattle roamed much of the pampa until the mid-nineteenth century. Inhabitants of the Río de la Plata, especially the equestrian gaucho, developed a fondness for beef. The meat, often a side of ribs, is skewered on a metal frame and is roasted by placing it next to a slow-burning fire. Gauchos favored cooking asado with the wood of the quebracho tree because it smokes very little. Asado, accompanied by maté tea, formed the basis of the gaucho diet; this technique is still used today. In Brazil, the cooking style is known as churrasco.
Paraguay, as well as Argentina is one of the biggest consumers of asado. On weekends, and especially on Sundays, Paraguayans eat roasts, on holidays, on birthdays, when there is a “game” (football) and sometimes even for no reason, the asado is the main protagonist of their gatherings.
Biggest BBQ/asado Guinness World Record set by Paraguay
More than 30,000 people grilled their way into history on October 26th, 2008 to devour 61,600 pounds (28,000 kilos) of meat over the course of 6 hours to create the world’s largest barbecue in the Mariano Roque Alonso Township located on the outskirts of Asuncion.
To set a Guinness World Record, the entire bovine had to be eaten in less than 8 hours. Bloated participants made short work of the feat in record time, consuming an average of more than 2 pounds per person. Now if that is not a heck of an asado, then I am not sure what is!
Volunteer barbecue masters built fires covering a massive area 197 feet (60 meters) wide by 328 feet (100 meters) long, about the size of a football field. Known locally as todo bicho que camina va al asador, the event name translates into English as “Every critter walking goes to the barbecue”.
There is no Paraguayan neighborhood where every Sunday you do not “smell” that typical smell of roasting meat. This is their ritual that begins with the purchase of meat accompanied by soft drinks and some beer or wine, chorizos of various kinds, the salad, the mandioca (cassava), the sopa paraguaya, the chipa guasu and the coal. While preparing the fire and meat is almost essential to a good asado, the “grill” is equally important and can be made from bricks or homemade gadgets and the famous drums (parrilla) to a modern quincho at the back of the house.
When the cooking fire is made with wood, this is called con leña. Wood fires are usually used in the countryside, and lend a smoked flavor to the meat. This kind of asado is called asado criollo, a term that indicates a more rustic, traditional style of event. On the other hand, in the city, wood is not as easily obtained, and it is more common to use charcoal to light the fire in the parilla. This is called parilla al carbón.
While the never ending battle for barbecue supremacy will continue to rage, the history of the barbecue is as diverse as the traditions themselves, moving through a path that began in the Caribbean and evolving to Paraguay and Argentina with asado.
- Top stirloin (tapa cuadril)
- Flank steak (vacio)
- Tri-tip , rump tail, sirloin bottom, or tip roast (colita cuadril)
- Beef ribs (costilla ancha)
- Parrillero (beef and pork chorizo sausage)
- Morcilla (blood sausage)
- Season the meat with rock salt.
- Slow cook the meat on a barbecue for a few hours.
- Grill the sausages toward the end.