The Art (or not so art) of the Chilean Asado

by Liz Caskey on November 15, 2005

asado Another weekend, another asado. Such is life in Chile in the summer. Asados, otherwise know in English as barbeques, are much more than grilled meat and outdoor eating here; they are a full on event and social ritual.  
            We were invited over to our friends’ new house on Saturday night for an asado/housewarming party to put to use their brand new patio with the beautiful late spring weather. When we arrived, the fire was still being “staged”, with Pisco Sours in hand. I should interject here that in Chile, there are virtually no gas grills used like in the US. In fact, I have been called “crazy” or “uncreative” by even suggesting their use or superiority in an asado. There is a major cultural difference in that barbeques in South America are actually made with wood or carbon, which in all fairness, do infuse a more complex flavor into the meat if prepared correctly. “Making” and “taking care of” the fire also turns an asado into a cultural ordeal with the men strategizing the best way to get the fire going, maintaining the temperature, and of course, cooking the meat to perfection (with or without any previous experience, of course). The gals are usually exiled to the kitchen for the salads or to make drinks.
             In this instance, there was no vessel for the barbeque such as a metal drum or actual asado equipment, only several cement blocks whose parameter made up the fire pit over sand. In the bottom of the pit, carbon and recycled wood from the demolition (80 years old they assured, extra flavor) was put with a wine bottle encased in old newspaper. They removed the bottle (which retained the shape) and lit the newspaper, which slowly burned igniting the carbon and wood, eventually creating glowing, red coals. They stacked a couple extra cement blocks to get the height needed for cooking and then popped on some chicken skewers and famous chorizo, or spicy pork sausage. Everything looked okay at this point so the party went on autopilot.
            30 minutes later, the first round of food is ready: the skewers and choripan, the chorizo eaten inside marraqueta (baguette-style bread) with (or without) mayo. Everything is delicious. The meat and chicken in gringo-style barbeque sauce (my offering to the festivities) were then added to the grill. I noticed however, as the wine drinking increased, that the fire seemed to be slowing down and our grill master had disappeared. After another 30 minutes of negligence, the fire had stopped giving off any significant heat and people, now very hungry, were wondering when dinner would be served (sorry guys, no time soon). Our friend, the host and grill master, decided that an emergency procedure would be needed to resuscitate the fire from its desperate state. He removed the grill (a simple oven rack) and two of the blocks. He disappeared to his photography studio and returned with a huge fan which he plugged in. He then turned on the fan full blast, trying to generate enough air (more like a wind storm) to get the flames going again over fresh wood and carbon. Now, this could have worked in theory had the fire been confined to a cement jail cell. What wasn’t calculated was the huge pile of wood directly behind the pit which promptly almost caught on fire (as his fiancé freaked out). Mission aborted. More wood was needed for the fire so one of the invitees, with cigarette and red wine balancing in one hand, decided to hack at a piece of wood into splinters. I was cringing hoping to avoid calling the firemen or ambulance at this point.
               Next, a sushi fan was brought out which between 5 people (now all suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome) fanned like hell for 15 minutes to get the flames and charcoal glowing. It worked–somewhat. Enough to half-cook the chicken and some of the steak. The solution our grill master decided was to lower the rack to bring the meat to roughly 1 inch from the flame to cook faster. Uh-oh. At this point, now midnight with growling stomachs, I motioned to finish searing the meat in a fry pan and roasting it in the oven. There was no way a 1.5 kilo chunk of meat (not cut down into smaller steaks) was going to finish cooking before 7am. I mean, come on!, the ritual aspect was gone, hunger ruled, and we had a working stove and oven over this makeshift pit. I was outvoted—the asado must go on. His fiancé insisted we sit down to start in on the delicious salads she had been preparing.
              As we dug into the salads, the grill master appeared, smiling, with a large wooden cutting board, and a singed, black piece of meat. He proudly announced, “See? The meat is finally done”. As he cut into the meat, he described the magic of its perfect doneness as the special salt crust (he roughly poured a ½ cup directly onto it; people with high blood pressure please pass). As he continued to cut, the meat was juicy and pink but as the first slice came off, was so pink, it looked raw. Why! It was totally uncooked in ¾ of the center! An argument ensued among the men at the table about the doneness and their wimpiness for not wanting to try it in that state (from a culinary perspective, it was absolutely uncooked, not even rare doneness).  I passed. The meat, after much debate, was returned to the grill to finish cooking.
               Many bottles of wine later, a delicious French apple tart for dessert and coffee, I happened to notice through the sliding glass door on the patio that the poor piece of meat, an unassuming casualty of the asado, had been forgotten and was still smoking over smoldering coals. Laughing out loud (this was comical at this point), I pointed this out to the hostess, who had lost her patience, and yelled at the grill master, “Look at that (pointing to the fire)! You did it again!!!” Apparently he is a serial steak murderer, having killed another one, to her horror, at an asado the weekend before with her family. Opening the door, the fire with a horrible stench, I was sure that the neighbors had already called the fire department.  The grill master, defeated and slightly drunk, stumbled out to the fire pit and tossed sand over the ashes. The asado saga had ended.
               So, next time when people here call me crazy for wanting to use a gas grill, I think I will just have to tell them this story. Some steak for thought.

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