Recipe: Barbacoa beef and the (bloody) roots of barbecue

If there’s any type of food that has a history worth plumbing it’s the fine art of putting meat on fire. Barbecue – powerful enough to make home cooking the bizarre preserve of men and tasty enough to keep doing long, long, after the British summer has descended into overcast drizzle.

In that respect, it’s little wonder that the word’s origin, the Taino word barbacoa, means ‘sacred fire pit’. So here’s a potted history of how what went into the pit meant one hell of a moral pickle for those Spaniards in Cuba.

I had a short episode of studying the Taino and various portrayals of them whilst at university – much of it through European engravings like the below from Theodore de Bry. It was a long story – like most parts of history, one in which people viewed eachother in the frames of sex, death and food. And for the Spaniards arriving in the Caribbean, the latter was one way of anchoring the tumultuous process of understanding a people they’d never even known existed.

To be reductive, the peaceful Taino people that Columbus encountered and traded with lived on a diet based on cassava (also known as yuca), cultivating it themselves and supplemented with seafood, vegetables and smaller animals. The portrayals of their diet in both word and picture reflect the perception of an innocent people – the kind that had many an ecclesiastical hand wringing about what to do with a ‘good’ people who through no fault of their own had never fallen under the mantle of the Church. Their diet was simple and relatively bloodless – organised and civilised. Looking at how they’re depicted shows this robust ruddiness – as well as the elusive tinge of gold, along with the civilising hallmarks of hierarchy and administration:

And then you turn to the Carib, for whom the region is named. Shrouded in a huge amount of rumour and misinformation and likely to be a complex mix because of the practice of abducting and marrying Taino women, the Carib were portrayed to be the terrorists of the islands – and of course, where the word ‘cannibal’ is derived from.

Regularly raiding other islands for both people and spoils, the Carib were believed by the landing Europeans to eat their captives. In comparison to the Taino, the Carib were the intellectual ammunition for those back home who believed that Europeans had moral right over the newly-discovered peoples. Morally sullied beyond retrieval, the Carib were seen as better off under slavery.

The history is littered with huge misconceptions – for example, it’s likely that other tribes may have practiced endocannibalism – the eating of tribe members after they have passed away in order to save them the indignity of decomposing or being eaten by animals. However, the portrayal of one tribe eating cassava and another eating human flesh are the keynotes of their distinction – they were what they ate. Food, as ever, was one of the few ways in which Europeans could even attempt to understand a brand new people, simply because the need to eat (and, to be fair, screw) was one of the few things they had in common.

The lines are obviously blurred – but images like de Bry’s are infinitely more shocking and disturbing than any you might find in the National Inquirer, and unimaginably so in the early 16th century when the furthest you might have travelled was Barnsley.

And that’s how we get from a lengthy discussion on cannibalism to a nice recipe for beef – I do hope you’re not put off.

So, barbecoa – the original idea being that you wrap your meat up and throw it into a fiery pit before covering it with some leaves to slowly get tender – is a bit different to what we think of as barbecue. No throwing steaks on a hot grill here, but what you do get is an incredibly tasty way to make cheap cuts of meat juicy and incredibly delicious.

This recipe is with beef, although barbacoa can just as easily be lamb-based. Tastes great on its own, but also a perfect meat to add to salsa and rice or tortillas. Takes a while, but worth every damn minute.



For the marinade (based on Thomasina Miers’ delicious meat marinade)

4-5 dried ancho chillies (mulatto also works well)

8 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 cinnamon stick

2/3 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp dried oregano

40g dark chocolate (70% cocoa)

200ml olive oil

salt and pepper

For the rest

1kg beef brisket

100ml cider vinegar

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground cloves

2 tsp oregano

3 bay leaves

juice of 2 limes

1 tsp chipotles en adobo (optional)

250 ml chicken stock

3 medium tomatoes, quartered


  1. Cut the chilies into flattish pieces, removing the stems and as many seeds as possible
  2. Heat a dry frying pan until medium-ish, then heat the chilies through for about 10 seconds, turning so that they’re fragrant but not burning
  3. Add them to a small saucepan , cover with boiling water and simmer until soft (about 15 mins)
  4. Remove and then blend with the remaining marinade ingredients and a few splashes of the chili-soaking water until smooth
  5. Season well and then pour into a clean ziplock bag
  6. Add the brisket and make sure it’s all coated in the marinade. Seal and bung into the fridge overnight.
  7. The next day…
  8. Take the remaining spices and garlic and blend with the vinegar, lime juice and chipotles until smooth
  9. Pre-heat the oven to 100C
  10. Get the brisket out and let it get to room temperature before adding to a heavy pot with the chicken stock, flavouring goodness and tomatoes
  11. Pop the lid on and let it cook slowly in the oven for around six hours
  12. Remove from the oven and let it sit for about 20 minutes before shredding the beef and letting it soak up all the juice
  13. Serve and enjoy!

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