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Light the fire

Asian grilling offers flavors to be savored

Asian seafood kebabs with spicy salsa make an ideal lunch or dinner. Asian seafood kebabs with spicy salsa make an ideal lunch or dinner. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff; Food styling/Nina Simonds)
By Nina Simonds
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2009

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In Asia, grilled dishes aren't just warm-weather fare. The streets are filled with the enticing aromas of smoky foods year-round and each country has its own specialty. In some countries, street vendors strap portable grills to their pushcarts and wheel them about at all hours, offering cheap, delicious snacks.

Northern Chinese savor skewered lamb or mutton flavored with garlic and cumin, and they also like Mongolian barbecue, which consists of assorted meats stir-fried with a melange of vegetables. In Japan one of the most popular street foods is teriyaki-flavored chicken, beef, or pork on skewers. The national dish of Korea is pulgogi or bulgogi, a do-it-yourself meal in which diners cook slices of sirloin beef with scallions, mushrooms, and cellophane noodles on dome-like grills. Vietnamese cooks wrap barbecued pork, beef, and seafood, with shredded vegetables, rice noodles, and herbs inside lettuce or fresh spring roll wrappers, then dip them in a spicy sweet and sour sauce.

According to an ancient Chinese legend, emperor Sui Ren Shi became convinced that consuming raw food was bad for his subjects. He built a fire with sparks from flint and roasted some meat over the coals. It was the birth of barbecue.

Grilling gives cooks a chance to be creative and invent dishes that blend East and West. You can pair barbecued meats, seafood, and vegetables with fresh fruit and vegetable salsas, for instance, so you get appealing complements and contrasts of hot smoky foods and cooler accompaniments.

Asian grilled dishes are not unlike their Western counterparts. Marinades and spice rubs provide flavor and color and also tenderize. Simple marinades are made with garlic, ginger, scallions, and a little sugar or honey for color. For seafood, a rice wine-based mixture with ginger and a touch of toasted sesame oil is used to remove any fishy flavor.

Cooking food over an open fire is basic, so good quality ingredients are essential. You also have to be organized. Finish all the preparation before you start cooking. I keep big batches of marinades and rubs on hand.

You can also batch cook the grilled dishes. As the smoky flavor mellows, the food tastes just as appealing the next day. Add meats and seafood to salads or eat them at room temperature for an enhanced taste of summer.