In Ho Chi Minh City, American-style barbecue has taken off in a big way over the past year. One local expat has been perfecting the art for decades and is even bringing modern, do-it-yourself smokers to Vietnam. By Brett Davis. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Since Quan Ut Ut opened its doors in District 1 earlier this year, the city’s residents have been introduced to the concept of American barbecue, a style of cooking that uses smoke, low heat and long cooking times to produce amazingly tender and flavourful meat.
People have certainly taken to it, with queues outside the restaurant often snaking around the corner. However if you like your barbecue but are not the patient kind, then there might be an answer.
George Humphreys, originally from Texas in the United States, has been perfecting the art of smoking for more than four decades. So dedicated is he that he has his own smokers at his home in District 7.
These modern, electronic Bradley smokers impressed Humphreys so much that he became the company’s Southeast Asian representative. You can set the temperature and cooking time, while another part of the machine automatically feeds in discs of compressed wood to provide the smoke.
You can also choose what type of wood to use to add different flavours, such as apple, cherry, hickory or even old whiskey barrel.
Humphreys learned his craft in the 1970s back in Texas, the spiritual home of American-style barbecue. “The 80-mile radius around Austin is the barbecue capital of the world,” he says.
After a varied and colourful career as a small-town chief of police, transport company owner, and oil and gas worker, he then got into a side business selling firewood. He would clear dead trees from ranches in the area and sell the wood to the many barbecue joints.
“I watched and listened and asked questions of these guys,” Humphreys recalls, “And that’s how I started, through sales of wood.” He learned well enough that in 1974 he opened The County Seat Smoke-House in Burnet, Texas which became tremendously successful.
Pork ribs, a staple of barbecue joints everywhere, are probably the most iconic cut prepared using a smoker. Humphrey’s recipe for ribs calls for about six hours of cooking time, but only in the first half of that time is smoke used. This is to ensure the meat does not dry out.
Before the smoker, however, the meat must be prepared. According to Humphreys, the first step is to leave the fat on the meat. “Some people trim all the fat off, but for me that is the biggest mistake you can make,” he says. Instead he starts by liberally coating the ribs in a good virgin olive oil and then adding any additional flavour via a spice mix called a rub.
Humphrey’s own ‘Texas’ rub contains brown sugar, chilli powder, cumin, black pepper, coriander, cinnamon and Coleman’s hot English mustard. “The olive oil helps pull that flavour right into the meat,” he says.
Then it is into the smoker bone-side up for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the size, at about 105 degrees celsius. The ribs placed this way form a U shape so the juices will collect and add to the flavour. Then he advises to remove the ribs and spray them with a touch of apple juice before returning to the smoker for another 90 minutes, this time meat-side up.
“If you want to make sure the meat is flavoured from bone-tip to bone-tip, you have to flip it over,” he says.
At the end of the first two-and-a-half to three hours, the smoking portion of the process is complete, so no more wood chips need to be added. Again remove the ribs, but this time spray them liberally with apple juice before wrapping in tin foil and placing them back in the smoker.
When the meat is falling away easily from the bone but still moist, you know you are done. Then Humphreys advises allowing the ribs to rest for a sufficient time.
“Do not unwrap them, but take a bath towel and wrap them tightly and put them on a tray. If you let them rest, my friend, they will be finger-licking good!”
Humphreys also extolls the virtues of smoked cheese, particularly paired with a good port wine, however it can be a tricky process. Cheese is cold smoked and the ambient temperature in Ho Chi Minh City means he has to do this in the pre-dawn hours.
It may take a some time to prepare perfect barbecue and more than a little practice but then again, good things come to those who wait.
Contact George on: firstname.lastname@example.org