With the brand new Food Safari series soon to roll out, we chat to TV legend and tandoor enthusiast Maeve O'Meara about the season's hottest food trend: cooking with fire. Here she talks charcoal, barbecue addicts and why it's good to go “low and slow”.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

7 Dec 2015 - 2:49 PM  UPDATED 2 Feb 2017 - 5:25 PM

Congratulations on your new series Food Safari Fire, Maeve! Tell us about the show’s concept. Previously Food Safari concentrated on demystifying different cuisines. So each episode was a cuisine across four different series, plus there was an extended mix on the French and Italian Food Safaris. This is different because we look at fire being the unifying link between the cuisines across the world. Fire is an elemental thing that unites everyone and makes everyone excited. It’s something people can connect to and it’s fun. It looks amazing on television, too!

Cooking with fire is such a sensory experience. What draws you to this process? I think it’s exciting and interactive and it’s different every time. Even top chefs have moved away from fussy techniques to the challenge of cooking with fire.  

Cooking over fire adds so much to what you eat – there’s nothing like it. In pure tastebud terms, it is the best way to cook.

On top of that, everyone loves fires. It connects us to our ancestors in a sense and it’s quite civilising, in a way. It brings people together: you anticipate the food you’re going to eat, you smell it cooking and then you sit down and eat it together. But the bottom line is always flavour!

Are we seeing a trend towards that primal style of cooking? Fire, in all its forms, is the new black. People are ready to learn and dive in. It’s quite addictive, too. The American-style barbecue scene, [for instance], that’s quite a cult! 

That’s true. Food stalls serving smoked brisket, sticky ribs and pulled pork have taken off across Australia. What are the origins of the “low and slow” barbecuing style?

I love a bit of food history. That goes back to the African slaves who were in the Caribbean many centuries ago. They were not given the best cuts of meat to cook. In fact, they had what were considered the offcuts and developed this different way of cooking that would make them quite delicious.

“Low and slow” means if you cook meat at a low heat for a long, long time all the connective tissue and collagen melts and makes it very unctuous.

How can home cooks incorporate fire-based cooking methods into their weekly routine? You can buy a very simple cooking device from any Middle Eastern cooking stores that is just a box on legs with a grill plate and that’s usually about $50. There’s also the Asian clay pot style of barbecue with this wire rack cooking that’s the size of a large saucepan. They’re not huge devices and you can cook satays, Vietnamese bun cha, Thai gai yang and Portuguese sardines.  

Vietnamese bun cha from Angie and Dan Hong. Catch the recipe in episode 8 of Food Safari Fire and find it online here.

 

Charcoal is often credited for enhancing the flavour of food. In the series, you chat to truffle grower-cum-charcoal expert Peter Marshall. What did you learn about the heat source? Charcoal is the carbon left behind after you burn off all the water from wood. The wonder of charcoal is it actually doesn’t impart flavour. What it does is it burn hotter than wood so you’ve got this heat source that will cook things absolutely beautifully. The flavour is from the fat or the juices that drip onto the charcoal – this natural smoke and flavour comes up to perfume what you’re cooking. That’s the smell that will drive your neighbours insane when you’re cooking outside.

Are you much of a barbecue-r yourself? Very much! I think many people who’ve grown up in Australia have grown up with the backyard barbie. Mine now extends to a tandoor oven, which I’m so excited about! In the series we met this beautiful potter, Cameron Williams, who makes tandoors and a number of Indian chefs and Armenian people using them.

The old thing was “Chuck a prawn on the barbie”, well chuck a prawn inside a tandoor! Marinate it with a couple of spices and it’s delicious!

Smoking is another element explored in the series. Why is this cooking technique so hot right now? Smoking adds a whole new dimension to cooking outdoors and the levels of flavour achieved with what are usually secondary cuts of meat are simply extraordinary. One dedicated smoker calls it the Holy Grail! Beef brisket is the most challenging cut of meat to work with, but the results are so satisfying.  

The whole barbecue and cooking-with-fire thing is not just about meat. One of the chefs we spoke to, Danielle Alvarez, cooked corn in the husk, placing it directly onto charcoal to steam and smoke it at the same time. Then she served it as a salad with capsicum, coriander, lime and avocado. My god that was fantastic.

Did you have many other eye-opening experiences in the show? So many! There was the Samoan umu where they heat volcanic rocks and use them for cooking. The family actually poured sugar onto one of the rocks which burst into flame, then dripped into this beautiful, freshly ground coconut milk to make this toffee dessert. They also cut slits into their pork and lamb and inserted the rocks into the meat! I’ve never seen that before.