Tina Fiore: First of all, congratulations on your James Beard nomination for your book "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Mexican Cooking" (Viking, 1999)!
Steven Raichlen: Thank you very much.
TF: How did you discover healthy cooking?
SR: It discovered me. In the 1980s, I was a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. I was eating out five to six nights a week, and thus developed a cholesterol problem. I started to seriously think about food and flavors. Not wanting to go on a low-fat diet, which sacrificed flavor, I decided to cook low-fat dishes, while putting something back into them - flavor.
TF: There are a lot of people these days that would like to cook healthily, but feel that they don't have the time and think it's easier to buy a pre-prepared meal. What would you say to someone who says they don't have the time to cook healthily?
SR: I really don't buy that! I think it's relatively simple to put a fish or chicken fillet on the grill; it takes no time at all. If you don't have time to cook healthily, what do you have time for? There is nothing more important than taking care of yourself.
TF: What are the main spices, herbs and seasonings that enhance and create 'high flavor' in your dishes?
SR: Everything! Any fresh herb. When I first got into healthy cooking, there weren't as many fresh herbs in the markets; parsley seemed to be the only one. But now, you can get everything - fresh basil, cilantro, thyme, mint, etc.
I also use a lot of Asian condiments, chile pastes and lemongrass. I use lots of different types of chiles as flavor enhancers. I discovered a lot while traveling in other countries. People around the world are, and have been, experimenting with such a wide variety of herbs and spices, more than in the States. At the same time, America has made huge strides. These days, you can find almost everything in your local market.
TF: In the States, where do you find ingredients and produce, especially exotic ones?
SR: Many times, I venture into Indian or Middle Eastern markets. They tend to be a lot cheaper. I listed many of my resources in the back of "The Barbecue Bible".
TF: Tell us a little about Barbecue University.
SR: Barbecue University is a weeklong program at Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The resort is located on the top of a beautiful mountain. It's an intensive course on grilling and barbecuing. There's a huge fireplace both inside and out. It's the perfect location. At the moment, the program is still in its experimental stages, but I hope to turn it into an ongoing event.
TF: How did you originally get into food, food writing and cookbook authoring? Was food writing your initial journalistic pursuit?
SR: Yes, I always wanted to be a food writer. I majored in French literature in college and ended up winning the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship, which allowed me to study abroad for a year. So I studied medieval cooking and literature in France. I took a culinary graduate tour of Paris. I was in food full-time.
TF: What is your advice to an aspiring food writer or cookbook author?
SR: Firstly, for any writer, food or not, the more you write, the better you get at it. Secondly, it is so important to pursue something that truly interests you, to pursue your passion. Thirdly, try and find a niche where there is room to grow and explore. In the early 1990s, when I started writing about healthy cooking, it was a wide-open field. Since then, there have been a lot of copycats. The same goes for barbecuing, there aren't a lot of books out there on barbecuing, but stay tuned…
TF: "The Barbecue Bible" is currently in its 7th printing and has spawned a very popular web site, www.thebarbecuebible.com. Tell us about the research that went into this book.
SR: I traveled for 3 years through 25 countries, over 5 continents around the world. Then I spent one year recipe tasting. It was a huge labor. I used lots of local informants, like college professors and taxi drivers. It was a lot of fieldwork, but it was also a lot of fun to write.
TF: How does grilling and barbecuing differ from country to country or region to region?
SR: There are quite a few differences actually. In America we are used to the true barbecue, like those of Texas, which are slow smoked. The word 'barbecue' comes from an Arawak Indian word (native to the Caribbean and South America), 'barbacoa'. It referred to a wooden frame or grate you could position over a smoky fire. Meats were smoke-cooked on the grate. Thus, it's the origin of American barbecue. In fact, the technique was probably practiced all over the Americas.
In Argentina, they barbecue big, beautiful and simple. They'll put half a side of beef on a bonfire and season it only with salt. While in India, spices are the main part of the barbecue.
In Asia, small is beautiful. They grill small fillets. There is a Vietnamese beef dish called bo bun, which is thin shavings of grilled beef over rice noodles and vegetables with chopped peanuts for a touch of sweetness. It's a very healthy way of eating. Many times, the grilled meats are used as condiments, accenting the meal, rather than acting as the main course
In Italy and France, the barbecue is also very simple - fire and olive oil, like Biftek a la Fiorentina. In Spain, they also grill artichokes and leeks.
As for the type of meat, in South America, beef is king. Then there is the lamb belt grilling, comprising Morocco, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, and down through Indonesia. Lamb is the meat of Islamic cultures.
TF: What are your favorite spots from your journey?
SR: I would say I could name 5 favorite spots: Japan, India, Turkey, Indonesia and Argentina.
TF: In your last interview you said your favorite ingredient was lemon, does this still hold true or have you fallen in love with something more exotic along the way?
SR: No, it's still lemon. You could put me on a desert island with only lemon, and I'd be happy.
TF: Do you have any hints for overcooking meat, an all-too-common mistake in barbecuing?
SR: It is very important for people to realize that meat continues to cook after it comes off the grill. Pull it off early and let the meat rest. A big roast should rest about 15 minutes, while a steak should sit a couple of minutes. The high heat from the grill forces all of juices to the center of the piece of meat. Letting the meat rest allows the juices to timidly creep back to the periphery of the meat.
TF: What is your favorite drink to complement a good barbecue?
SR: Beer is the easy answer; it always goes well with a barbecue. At the same time, I've sampled drinks all over the world and have grown to love quite a few of them. For example, in the Bahamas, there is a coconut cocktail called 'sky juice'. It's traditionally made with gin, a throwback to the British occupation. In Brazil, I enjoyed a drink similar to a daiquiri, called a caipirinha. What makes it unique is the addition of whole limes, which adds a touch of bitterness from the rind. In Muslim cultures, they drink yogurt-based drinks with a barbecue, like 'doh', which consists of yogurt whey, club soda, salt and mint. These are incredibly refreshing, especially when you are in Iran, standing by the grill in 100 degrees heat.
TF: What are your favorite tools for barbecuing?
SR: Long, spring loaded tongs because they are very stiff and rigid, they hold the meat without dropping it. I never use commercial barbecue tongs; a lot of them are lousy.
TF: Tell us about your new book coming out, "Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, Bastes, Butters and Glazes" (Workman Publishing) in June 2000.
SR: This book is really the baby brother of "The Barbecue Bible". A lot of Americans feel that the sauce is the barbecue. This book is for them! I'm actually doing a quintet of books about barbecuing. There's so much to say about the subject.
TF: Is there one ingredient that is an essential in your sauces and marinades, a secret ingredient that you'd be willing to share with us?
SR: Well, I use extra virgin olive oil on everything; it's an essential, especially for basting. But my secret ingredient is Asian sesame oil, which I put on everything before grilling: vegetables, pork chops, fish. The oil adds such a distinct nutty flavor. And of course, it's always important to use a good coarse salt.
TF: Besides the new book, what are your future plans?
SR: After Barbecue University, I will be working on a new book on how to grill. It will include 600 color photos and will encompass all the techniques of grilling, a definitive book on grilling. I am also putting together my own line of barbecues and accessories. There will be more on that in the future… Also, in September 2000, I have a new book coming out, "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Jewish Cooking" (Viking Publishing, Fall 2000). It's sort of an oxymoron: a reduced fat and low sodium Jewish cookbook, but it's my way of paying homage to my forbearers: my grandparents, great aunts, et cetera.
TF: All of your recipes are innovative and creative, where do you find your inspiration?
SR: Traveling has been a major source of inspiration for me, meeting and talking with so many different people. At the same time, a lot of great ideas come to me in the middle of the night while I'm lying awake in bed.
TF: I wish I had such productive nights!