Last December, with little fanfare, the Chinese government swept away its rigorous Covid restrictions, which had been the strictest and longest running in the world. Since then, there has been a collective sense of people across China gratefully – albeit tentatively – emerging from a dream world.
In March, however, that slow waltz back to normalcy turned into a full-on stampede. A series of videos posted to the Chinese version of TikTok ignited an unlikely mania for street barbecue in Zibo, a manufacturing city of some 4.5 million people in eastern China’s Shandong province. Hungry travellers from around the country began descending en masse upon Zibo (March saw 4.8 million visitors alone) – and the national media promptly christened the city the “holy land of barbecue”.
The sudden sense of emancipation proved perfectly matched to Chinese entrepreneurial zeal, with local restaurateurs and the city government joining forces to open their arms to outsiders. Since March, “Barbecue Special” high-speed trains have ferried hordes more visitors to the city, where massive, newly repurposed open-air food courts have been furnished with low tables and plastic stools. When the tsunami of barbecue pilgrims crested earlier this month, during the nationwide May Day holiday, megaphone-wielding restaurant owners took on the task of crowd control, guiding hungry diners to their tables and making sure they didn’t go thirsty, with cold 2.5-litre pitchers and cases of beer stacked high.
In China, though, eating kebabs has always been far more than just a way to feed oneself; it’s also a much-cherished way to spend time with friends and family.
Chinese often use the phrase yanhuoqi (???) as shorthand for a satisfying barbecue experience. Translated literally, it means “the smell of smoke and fire” – that gripping, primal, magical whiff of rendered fat hitting the coals below.
On an even deeper level, though, the phrase connotes a shared feeling of cheer and human warmth: a kind of bonhomie born from shared hunger and the anticipation of a sizzling, well-cooked skewer.
No wonder then that barbecue, or shaokao (烧烤), is ubiquitous throughout China. It is cheap, messy, hands-on, full-contact eating, and about as far from white-tablecloth dining as is possible to get. Here’s the lowdown on Zibo barbecue and China’s other major regional variations:
Zibo became a tourism hotspot after videos of its barbecue went viral online (Credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Zibo-style barbecue (淄博烧烤)
Zibo barbecue offers a veritable menagerie of skewered meats (skin-on pork belly is the style’s sine qua non), delivered to the table with stacks of chewy, tortilla-like flour wrappers and piles of sweet Shandong spring onions.
Diners first grill the meat themselves on small charcoal braziers set out before them. To assemble them, first fold the wrapper into quarters anddip one edge in chilli-garlic sauce, crushed peanuts and chilli powder. Next: unfold it in the palm of your hand and slap two skewers full of meat onto it. Then: fold the wrapper around the skewers like a towel and slide the meat off. Finally: double a spring onion over on itself, lay it atop the meat and stuff as much of it as you can into your mouth in one go.
Zibo barbecue is unique in China in that the grilled meat is eaten in a wrap with condiments (Credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Xinjiang-style barbecue (新疆烧烤)
Originating from Xinjiang in the far western reaches of China, this style is simple but utterly satiating. Made with lamb meat threaded onto a skewer together with juicy morsels of fat, it’s given liberal lashings of cumin and chilli powder before being served up to hungry customers.
Usually cooked by Uighurs – Turkic-speaking Muslims from Xinjiang itself – on a simple grill set up on the roadside, it has reached practically every corner of China. (Wei Fanfu, the owner of Old Wei’s Barbecue 老魏烧烤, which is arguably the longest-running barbecue restaurant in Zibo, says he was originally inspired by a Xinjiang kebab vendor in the 1980s.) Xinjiang kebabs can be reliably found around universities and on bar streets; follow the enticing smell of smoky lamb fat to find the nearest vendor.
Xinjiang-style barbecue consists of grilled lamb meat flavoured with cumin and chilli (Credit: Xia Yuan/Getty Images)
Northeastern-style barbecue (东北烧烤)
In keeping with the hardy, nose-to-tail spirit of Northeastern eating, specialties here include kidneys, chicken feet and chicken “racks” (the bony carcasses otherwise bound for the soup pot). China’s Northeast region faces brutal winters, and even though barbecue is generally regarded as a summertime phenomenon, Northeastern-style tends toward cuts of meat that would make most cardiologists uneasy.
It should also be noted that Northeasterners are a famously boisterous bunch. To eat barbecue in the local manner, be sure to wash it down with large quantities of baijiu (白酒), the bracing white liquor whose more potent varieties approximate the flavour and kick of jet fuel.
Cantonese-style barbecue (粤式烧烤)
Even in the sultry latitudes of South China, people go cuckoo for barbecue. Just up the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong, the city of Guangdong is famous for massive oysters grilled on the half shell along with a plethora of fresh grilled seafood. And while Cantonese cuisine is generally regarded as far more refined than that of China’s Northeast, some chefs here still bring their own flair to the table. One local legend, nicknamed “Hairdryer Hui”, has for nearly 30 years brandished a hairdryer to fan his coals to new heights of blazing intensity. (Faithful to the same brand of hairdryer since the start, Hui is reputed to burn through two a month and buys them in bulk at a local wholesale electronics market.)