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A hunt for American barbecue in southern China

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When you're living far from home, you sometimes crave a taste you think you can only get at home. NPR international correspondent John Ruwitch decided to look for his craving in southern China this summer.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Let me start by saying this - I love Chinese food - dumplings, hot pot, jia chang cai. I've spent years living in China, and when I'm in the country, it's mostly what I eat. But I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and in summer, we eat barbecued ribs, slathered with a sticky, sweet sauce. Sometimes I crave it. So one day, a few weeks ago, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, we went looking for it. When we asked around, we were pointed in the direction of a restaurant called Half Ton and its unlikely master of American barbecue.

NEPOP ALESSANDR SERGEEVICH: My name is Alessandr - Nepop Alessandr Sergeevich. I am from Ukraine - Kyiv.

RUWITCH: Nepop studied the culinary arts in college in Ukraine. He honed his skills in restaurant kitchens across Europe and in New York. But he discovered barbecue in Houston, Texas.

SERGEEVICH: I love this so much, and I found one guy who make barbecue in just his - near his home and he sells this. I just go there and work for one month for free - just study.

RUWITCH: During that month in Texas, he was up before dawn, trimming and rubbing meat, stoking fires, soaking up knowledge. Fast-forward a few years. Nepop was living in China, where he helped open a Russian restaurant. But he was thinking about barbecue.

SERGEEVICH: I think why - why nobody do here barbecue. And Chinese people like meat. So why? Why nobody?

RUWITCH: By here, he means Shenzhen, a city of some 17 million people across the border from Hong Kong. That's where he lives. There are a handful of American barbecue joints around China, but Nepop didn't know of any in Shenzhen. So he and some partners got to work.

SERGEEVICH: I make project for this barbecue. We build this by ourselves.

RUWITCH: For the barbecue pit, Nepop drew the design himself and hired a blacksmith to make it out of a giant segment of pipe. It's almost three feet in diameter and 15 feet long.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIT DOOR OPENING)

RUWITCH: Nepop also found ways to source American beef and pork, which he says is tastier than Australian or local meat. But he ran into a challenge getting traditional woods for smoking, like apple, hickory or mesquite.

SERGEEVICH: Here is - it's very difficult to find this wood, but a lot of lychee, a lot of lychee, so why not?

RUWITCH: For those who don't know, lychee's kind of tropical fruit about the size of a walnut. They have a leathery red peel, sweet, perfumy, white flesh, and they grow on trees all over Shenzhen.

SERGEEVICH: And he is make very nice smoky rings, so, so red and so deep, so cool. And taste is more sweet, little bit sour - similar to apple and oak.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

RUWITCH: We order some food. There's brisket, which was cooked low and slow for 16 hours - turkey, lamb and pork ribs, which is what I came here for.

It's a little different than St. Louis style. It doesn't have the sticky sauce on it. It looks - oh, wow, look at that. The meat's coming right off the bone. Damn, that's good. Smoky - you can taste the lychee wood.

The restaurant is filling up. Across the room, it's Xue Ning's first time eating barbecue here, and he's got good things to say.

XUE NING: (Through interpreter) The brisket is soft and juicy. I'll come back. I don't live far from here.

RUWITCH: Nepop probably never imagined he would thrive in a country so far from his home by making American barbecue. But when I ask him about his homeland and Russia's invasion, he doesn't want to dwell on it. He says only that he's happy where he is.

SERGEEVICH: Before war, I also not go to home - first, because I'm busy here. Second, we have a lot of project. I don't want to lose any time. China is a great place to make money.

RUWITCH: Someday, he says, he'll go home. For now, he leads us to the bar and pulls out some tiny glasses.

SERGEEVICH: In home, my father do vodka. My grandfather do vodka. I do vodka. I also make whiskey. I make rum.

RUWITCH: He pours some vodka that he made - his own taste of home, flavored with local lemons, though. And we lift our glasses for a toast.

What should we say?

SERGEEVICH: Budmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shenzhen, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.