Cooking with Fire
Wood fire, Cultures and Food
अग्नि, Fire, Fuego, Feu…different cultures call it by a different name. But all over the world, there is one thing common when it comes to fire. Like other forces of nature, fire is one which holds the power to create and destroy at the same time. Our ancestors believed that the fire is the essence of the power of the sun contained in various forms such as wood, coal, gas etc. our forefathers found out the way to start the fire. And that changed everything. Fire taught us that we don’t need to eat the meat raw, we don’t need to struggle with the cold. It gave us comforting warmth and the courage to fight the darkness around us.
There are many more lessons we learned from fire throughout the human race. What attracted me towards the fire is when I first encountered what fire could do to our food. My encounter with fire was a few years back. Being from an Indian Household. We used to have rituals with fire. Where we praise the almighty through the fire. There is no food is being cooked on that fire. But when the drops of clarified butter hit the fire. It goes up in smoke in a few seconds and I don’t know why but that activated my saliva glands. As if I have seen something appetising. Before that, I had no memory of eating food cooked on the fire. This magical experience was unnoticed until the age of 14.
All those memories came back and gave me a signal about what I want to do with my life. The occasion was another religious gathering where we pray the fire itself. The festival is we know as “HOLI”. Where we offer the whole coconut to the fire. And later when the fire turns wood logs into ambers, we take those coconuts out and eat it as the blessings of the fire. We call it “PRASAD”.
Raw coconut on its tastes delicious but when you throw it in fire and fire roasts and steams it at the same time. The outcome is heavenly. So, when I had a bite of that warm, charred coconut. It took me back 10 years and put me in that room where I experienced the beauty of fire and smoke for the first time. What happened with the coconut is what we call cooking. Many experiences like these encouraged me to get into the world of cooking
In chef/cook profession, it is always said that…” some recipes are not meant to be changed.” But as a chef, it is our job to try. All chefs around the world put their guards down when it comes to cooking with woodfire. Many people would agree with me. We have been improving the traits of cooking, using natural resources for thousands of years. But despite having self-driven cars, machines or A.I. it is hard to resist cooking with woodfire. no matter how technologically sound one individual is, the smell of barbecue or tandoor will make him/her salivate.
Since I am born and lived all my life in the city. I rarely experienced food cooked on the wood fire. it was a regular thing a few years back at the Indian countryside. That was something exotic to city folks like me. This my newly found obsession with woodfire cooking made me read and trace the culture of cooking on wood fire all around the world. Tandoor and Indian ways to cook on a wood fire is what I was familiar with.
The first woodfire cooking method abroad I read a lot about was the legendary culture of barbecue in the United States. at first, my impression was it is just about slow cooking fatty pork and then chopping it. As I read more, I learned that the culture of barbecue revolves around the regions, the availability of the product and the most important the wood easily found in that region. Different sauces used, wood vs ambers, Hickory vs mesquite etc. and involvement of different terms and techniques are purely an outcome of years and years of cooking. But as the legendary story has rather an emotional past. Barbecue is no exception.
Barbecue started due to the necessity to feed a large number of people with only cheap cuts made available. Brisket (tough cut of beef) and Boston butt (fatty and tough cut of pork) considered cheap cuts along with few others. These were the tragic days of slavery in the southern country. Slaves brought over from Africa to work on plantations. They had to feed their families. Where the prime cuts such as tenderloin, prime rib, belly preferred by white folks and slaves had these large tough cuts of meat.
As they say, tough times teach you more. Cooking with woodfire was no strange for African slaves. their solution was to slowly smoke these cuts with the wood they have available. And seasoned it with the basic seasoning. Barbecue was a staple back then, it has become a prestigious culture now, talking about woodfire cooking worldwide. Every country has different flavourings for their grilled meat. And different terms. But there are a few common things in all these differences.
Barbecue/woodfire cooking started either out of necessity to feed a large group of people needed to be fed.
Latin America has a few different terms such as LECHON, PARILLA, ASADO.
Southeast Asia has skewers called SATAY
China has CHAR SIU
Japan calls it YAKITORI for chicken and YAKINIKU for meats etc.
India/Pakistan has underground coal-fired oven called TANDOOR.
Mongolian barbecue is KHORKHOG and this is one of the many techniques.
Middle eastern countries call it as MANGAL. (Arabic for “on the fire”)
Australians call it BARBIE short for barbecue, New Zealand’s Maoris call it HANGI.
Hawaiians call their barbecue as IMU.
Some cultures are doing it as daily cooking, and some are doing it on weekends. But the essence is to preserve the culture and pass it on with the new generations. The fire has shaped humans.