For most of history an open fire was the only way to cook and across the world people still gather around a fire to cook and mingle. For Chef Lennox Hastie, whose Firedoor restaurant in Surry Hills cooks everything over fire, the simplicity of cooking this way is a way of life.
“It’s all about the experience,” Lennox tells Maeve O’Meara in this week’s episode of Food Safari Water. “About immersing yourself in that moment and enjoying it, you know? Fire’s what brings us all together.”
Lennox cooks a grilled flathead with broccolini and chilli over an open fire on the beach, but a wood barbecue is just one way to master fire cooking. Here’s how cultures around the world make fire-cooked fish and seafood a hot experience.
“[It’s] about immersing yourself in that moment and enjoying it, you know? Fire’s what brings us all together.”
Protected by banana leaves
Banana leaves have been used for centuries in Asian cooking and can be found fresh in most Asian food stores. They protect delicate food from fire and provide a parcel to gently steam seafood. Lay a banana leaf down on a barbecue before grilling fish. The leaf adds a smoky, sweet flavour to the fish and prevents it from sticking to the barbecue plate or grill.
“When I cook seafood, I want to see the fire is like lava of the volcano.”
To cook fish over fire, place firm-fleshed fish like flathead, ling, leather jacket or whiting on top of a banana leaf and add seasonings like fresh herbs, garlic or ginger. Wrap the leaf around and secure with string or foil.
Chef Ben Nguyen’s tip for cooking seafood this way is to make sure you keep the heat down.
“You don’t want [intense heat] to cook seafood, so you have to break it up,” says Nguyen. “When I cook seafood, I want to see the fire is like lava of the volcano.”
In Portugal, charcoal grills are fired up to cook sardines, grilled whole and seasoned with a little lemon. The sardines are heavily salted to provide a barrier between the unoiled, extra-hot grill and the fish, preventing sticking. The salt draws the moisture from the fish to crisp up the skin and develops a nice char that enhances the flavour of the fish.
At a party or in a restaurant, a binchōtan box might sit in the centre of the table so everyone can grill their own fish.
In Mexico’s Yucatan whole fish is rubbed with spices like cayenne pepper, coriander seed, achiote seeds and pepper then cooked in an “open” space on the grill, where the charcoal is adjacent, but not underneath the cooking area. Fish cooked like this often forms the basis of a dish like pescado zarandeado.
The Japanese use a type of charcoal known as binchōtan, made from oak and almost 100% carbon. Binchōtan imparts a clean smoked flavour to food and is perfect for enhancing, not overpowering, the delicate taste of mild fish varieties. At a party or in a restaurant, a binchōtan box might sit in the centre of the table so everyone can grill their own fish. Robatayaki is another form of Japanese charcoal cooking, using a wide, flat open fireplace.
Tandoor flamed, baked, steamed and smoked
A tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven with a charcoal fire lit within for hours at a time. This method of cooking exposes food to intense heat in many forms: fire, radiant heat, convection cooking and smoking. Varying types of tandoor are found in regions around the world, including in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Armenia (where it is known as a tonir), and Azerbaijan (tandir). In India, Tandoori prawns are a particular favourite, the intense heat of the tandoor cooks the prawns quickly and keeps all the juices intact.
Tandoor cooking exposes food to intense heat in many forms: fire, radiant heat, convection cooking and smoking.
It’s difficult to reproduce the true flavour of a tandoor at home (unless you have your own tandoor, of course), however, oven cooking followed by a chargrill can bring out a similar flavour.