Before the days of frantic airport security, my grandfather flew from Russia across the Atlantic with a bulky makeshift plywood container. It was bound with bundles of rope, its sides encased in duct tape. I remember, as a kid, wondering with wide-eyed bewilderment at the mysterious package. When the first sunny weekend rolled around, we loaded the box into the trunk of the family car and headed for a nearby park, where the contents were finally revealed. It was a grill, or, more precisely, it was our mangal.
Unlike celebrated icons of American grilling like Weber or Big Green Egg, with their sleek lines, the Russian mangal looks more like a crudely welded steel box. It is a utilitarian tool; aesthetic flourishes — a baroque twisted-iron leg here, an engraving along a side there — are rare and understated. Yet its design and proportions have been perfected over generations and across cultures.
As we fired ours up, the smell of smoldering charcoal wafted through the air. We laid down the first skewers of meat, and their scent mingled with the smoke. My father gave me a turn fanning the embers, but otherwise their slow sizzle provided a measured tempo to our socializing and eating. Years later, I’ve kept up my role, dedicating days and evenings to fanning the flames. It’s not a taxing job. With its leisurely and undemanding technique, a mangal creates a fuss-free occasion wherever it goes.
The mangal is essential in large swaths of Eurasia, embedded so deeply in various cultures as to go almost unnoticed. But it deserves greater recognition, not to mention more popularity around the world. Everyone deserves a versatile, reliable grill to gather friends and cook delicious, coal-roasted meals wherever they please. If you haven’t already met, get to know the mangal.
What is it exactly?
The mangal blends the best parts of a rotisserie spit with traditional charcoal grilling. Sizes vary but it’s generally about three feet long and a foot across, with a wide charcoal bed, open top, and ventilation holes on the sides. The longitudinal edges are carved with notches for skewers, which stick out like handles on a foosball table for turning.
The charcoal is exposed to plenty of oxygen, bringing down the cooking temperature compared to compact, spherical kettle grills. People argue about which type of charcoal is best — lump, briquettes, coconut shell — but the mangal is actually pretty forgiving as long as enough coals burn hot. Though the wide layout and simple materials make the mangal look clunky and unwieldy compared to modern grills, it’s surprisingly portable. Smart construction allows it to be broken down, packed up, and carried pretty much anywhere.
Rotating the skewers, like in a rotisserie, ensures a juicy texture by steadily melting the fat throughout, while the low heat cooks the interior of the meat slowly. As some droplets of fat escape, they cascade down onto the coals, coating the food in its own fragrant smoke. Occasionally, fanning through the sides of the box causes a flare-up, searing the meat’s crust to lock in flavor.
Where it’s used:
The mangal emerged in the Middle East and its name comes from “mankal,” the Arabic word for “carried,” a reference to its portability. It crossed fluidly between neighboring culinary traditions, as Slavic and Turkic nomads carried it across Eurasia.
Today it’s common throughout Islamic cultures from Turkey to Beijing, as well as post-Soviet countries from Ukraine to Azerbaijan to the Stans. In Moscow, it gained popularity in the late 19th century by way of Georgian immigrants, who sold skewers the Russians called “shashlik,” the Cossack term, out of their apartments. The mangal is ubiquitous in preparing street food like chuan in China. In Turkey, where the grill is synonymous with more casual gatherings, it’s used for shish kebab. And Israelis throw Independence Day parties around the mangal, cooking piles of lemon-marinated chicken shishlik and ground beef kofta.
Why everyone needs it:
Since my family’s initial outing with the mangal in the park, I’ve shared a skewer with a smiling roadside vendor in Uzbekistan, used a mangal to throw an ornate dinner party, and learned how to best pack it in my car for camping trips. In any context, there’s camaraderie to laying the coals, fanning them, and waiting for ignition. Guests gather around the warm embers as they trade turns tending the flame and rotating the skewers. The smell of smoke sticks to their clothes, a fragrant reminder of the incremental, diligent, communal preparation of food.
In the grill market, aficionados love to rank and compare devices on technical merits, always hunting for the optimal cooking apparatus. But for my Russian family, the mangal is classic and reliable, uncomplicated and faultless, versatile and transportable. Our mangal quickly cemented itself as a treasured family heirloom, despite its lack of age or aesthetic appeal, and we still haul it around in my grandfather’s plywood box. It’s now weathered and blackened, with each mark representing a different treasured memory.
How to get it:
Across Eurasia most people buy their mangals from local markets or get them directly from metal workshops. If you can’t haul yours back in a plywood box, you can find versions for sale online through Amazon, eBay, and Etsy.