You don’t need a huge barbecue to cook with fire.
Legendary chef Tetsuya Wakuda cooked the most perfect piece of Spanish mackerel over charcoal in a konro grill that was the size of an A4 piece of paper. (Watch Tetsuya in the full first episode online here.)
And my Thai chef friend Sujet Saenkham uses a popular Asian grill (terracotta encased in a metal bucket) to cook his marinated chicken. Many Middle Eastern shops sell simple grill trays and charcoal, which is all you need to fire up for delicious kafta (Lebanese meat skewers).
Salt plays a big role in cooking with fire.
I don’t know how the science works, but salt heightens flavours and seems to melt away with fire, leaving a delicious crust that’s surprisingly unsalty.
My Portuguese friend Fatima coats big, plump sardines in rock salt before cooking over charcoal. It adds so much flavour and, when cooked, the skins slip off just like a wetsuit, leaving some of the most tasty fish ever! It’s especially magnificent with blackened, peeled capsicums, dressed with a little olive oil and garlic and served with a glass of wine.
And on the subject of salt, most top chefs, including Melbourne's Guy Grossi, season before cooking steak.
Everything cooked over wood or charcoal fire tastes delicious.
It takes the flavour to another level. Everyone we featured in Food Safari Fire is a flame devotee — many told us cooking with fire is wired into their DNA.
Some top chefs such as Lennox Hastie at Firedoor in Sydney’s Surry Hills have moved towards cooking only with fire. Lennox matches produce to wood: he uses sweet fruit woods like nectarine to cook seafood, while oak or, even better, oak wine barrels is his go-to all-rounder. (Watch Lennox in the full first episode online here.)
Tip: Wood needs to be cured in a dry place for up to 18 months before it’s used.
The easiest charcoal lighter costs just $20.
To help you light charcoal, I recommend buying a chimney starter. They're available from barbecue stores for around $20.
In South Africa, braai-ing (barbecuing) is taken very seriously. There is even a national holiday on which all people spend the whole day cooking over fire. The spicing of South African chef Duncan Welgemoed’s onglet steak with biryani spices made my tastebuds dance.
Fire generally has two categories...
“Low and slow”, which is perfect for cooking secondary cuts of meat, like pork butt and brisket, and high and fast flame-cooking, best for Malaysian satay, Chinese lamb skewers, Greek souvlaki, Italian arrosticini and Turkish kebabs.
Turkish kebabs are an art form.
They’re cooked over charcoal so the juices dropping onto the coals add another level of flavour when the perfumed smoke kisses your kebabs. Sydney-based chef Somer Sivrioglu stunned customs officials when he brought the huge sword-like knife called a zirh into the country so he could hand-cut meat for his Adana kebab. Needless to say, there’s a whole world of flavour in episode four!
Nonnas still know everything when it comes to cooking.
In the series, chef Matt Germanchis (pictured at top) has the funniest, smartest grandmother who helped him make a classic filo pie with feta and horta (wild greens) in an aga, a different type of woodburning oven. It’s great seeing chefs who run a number of kitchens defer to their elders.
It’s basically the size of your fingernail, but you need to let the dough prove for a day and use the best flour. World number one pizzaiolo Johnny Di Francesco from 400 Gradi in Melbourne generously shared his recipe for the pizza you would cross oceans and deserts for!
Some people install swimming pools and tennis courts to enhance their lives…
Others install wood fired ovens. I’m all for the oven — the food cooked in wood fired ovens tastes incredible, and the lighting and cooking is a fun way to entertain.
The godfather of making ovens at home, Russell Jeavons, shared a recipe for stand-up snapper with roasted vegetables that took just six (!) minutes to cook. Calabrese capretto (baby goat) cooked with olive wood was also one of the best tastes of the show.
It’s brushed with a delicious marinade and then cooked over charcoal. The metal grill helps to turn the fish over easily and stop it from burning. The name for this dish, pescadora zarandeado, means “flipped”. Served with fresh corn tortillas and salsa, this is an easy dish that's full of flavour.
(Watch Food Safari Fire's full 'Street food' episode, featuring these fish tacos, online here.)
Charcoal is a magnificent substance that burns clean and hot.
It’s made by burning wood and then stifling the oxygen so you get a “carbon skeleton”. The highest grade charcoal, called binchotan, is made from a particular type of Japanese oak. People of the flame love long discussions about the best types of wood and charcoal. After you’ve been in this world for a while you begin to taste the subtle difference between various types of wood.
The test of a good recipe…
Is whether I make it within a few days of filming. One of my favourites from Food Safari Fire is Tetsuya’s all-purpose brush-on marinade for fish, chicken and steak. I also loved the grilled Spanish mackerel — it’s easy and exotic — along with the beef in betel leaf and Chilean pork belly with pebre (salsa).