Meet America’s Malayali BBQ Master

Malayali flavours meet the meaty goodness of Texas-style barbecue in the unlikely setting of Buffalo, NY.

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A meal at Southern Junction BBQ leaves many tempting options. On this tasting platter (right) fatty slivers of brisket are nestled next to the silky strands of barbacurry and a square of buttery cardamon cornbread. Smoked chicken tikka, a kolache, and pickled onions crowd the sides; Chef Ryan Fernandes gazes upon this generous BBQ tasting platter (left). Photos by: Julian Manning

Seeking out good barbecue in America often warrants a good drive, especially if you have a yen to relish regional styles. There’s nothing like hunting the horizons of your dashboard along highways and backroads for the ashy tendrils of post oak smoulder; the scents of local specialities sashaying out of far-flung smokestacks. In 2020, alone, I travelled thousands of miles to feast on piquant Memphis ribs and succulent North Carolina whole-hog cooking, smoked chicken drizzled with Alabama white sauce, chopped mutton sandwiches in Kentucky, and the beloved brisket of Texas.

On my 2021 foray for barbecue fixins, I was once again hitting the road for America’s regional chow, but the style I was in search of was exclusive to only one smokehouse in the country—barbecue made with a mix of Malayali and Texan techniques and flavours. I had extended a business trip to the East Coast into a big bet, renting a car and driving eight hours to Buffalo, NY to eat at Southern Junction Barbecue on the edge of the Canadian border. Having split my life between the American South and South India, travelling to Ernakulam for tapioca and fish head curry is just as important to me as journeying to El Paso for a plate of barbecue. And this impromptu road trip was worth the chance to find out if the chef behind this outlier operation could truly meld the magic of both cuisines into his cooking.

But Buffalo made no sense to me as a barbecue destination. Though I kept my foot on the pedal, I felt like my journey for Indo-Texan southern cooking this far north might be as fruitful as driving to Anchorage, Alaska for avial or ghee roast. Little did I know, I was about to taste some of the best barbecue in America: a place where Kerala beef fry meets barbacoa, and the cornbread wafts the fragrance of cardamom in a warm whisper of homestyle cooking.

 

Biryani and Brisket

Ryan Fernandes moved from Kerala to Texas in the eighth grade. Even though English was his first language, you could say he didn’t speak ‘Merican’ when he arrived in Dallas. With a last name like Fernandes and a slightly British accent, which he attributes to his Jesuit school days in India, the way the chef tells it, his peers couldn’t decide if he was from Mexico or Mars. “I used to trip people out with my accent… people just wouldn’t believe where I was from.” But he soon learned to speak the local lingo with his own twist. Biryani and brisket became his mother tongue with a Texas twang.

 

Read the complete feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2022. Get your copy here.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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