• Cooking chicken in KwaMashu, South Africa: one of 13 places featured in Barbecue. (Matthew Salleh & Rose Tucker)Source: Matthew Salleh & Rose Tucker
From a symbol of hope in Jordan to slow-cooked hog in Texas, barbecue brings people together.
Stephen A Russell

8 May 2017 - 11:50 AM  UPDATED 8 May 2017 - 11:50 AM

“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going.”

These wise words are spoken by a Maori elder near the end of filmmaker Matthew Salleh’s soaring doco Barbecue, in which Salleh and partner Rosie Tucker traverse the globe, meeting people from very different backgrounds, who all share the love of fire-cooked meat, from a restaurant in a Syrian refugee camp to nomads in Mongolia.

In New Zealand that meant the Hāngī, a traditional means of barbecuing meat, bread and vegetables with wood-heated stones buried underground, an arduous process followed by a celebratory wait during which time only positive, joyful things can be spoken.

While the ways in which meat was cooked varied wildly worldwide, the reason for doing it remained more or less the same: sharing the love with family and friends, passing on time-honoured techniques. 

“It’s not just the primal link of cooking meat on fire, but also the way that people around the world end up preserving this fascinating bit of their culture without even trying,” Salleh says. “That’s what makes food such a great way to look at the history and culture of a people.”

Taking in thirteen different languages across as many countries over nine months of filming, Barbecue, which is entirely given over to the words of its subjects accompanied by a beautiful score, will have its Australian premiere as this year’s Sydney Film Festival Gourmet Cinema event.

A six-course international barbecue feast will be served at The Meat & Wine Co in Sydney following a screening of Barbecue at Dendy Opera Quays on June 14. Award-winning Federico Rekowski, head chef at the Casula Powerhouse’s Bellbird, will host a lunch on June 17 inspired by his childhood in Venezuela, before a second screening of the documentary. The film will also be shown at Sydney’s Dendy Newtown on June 18.

Rekowski says his first memory of barbecuing was his father’s studious construction of a pyramid of hot coals. “It had to be done a certain way,” he chuckles. “It’s those sort of traditions that keep on going generation after generation and it doesn’t matter if you have a better way of lighting the barbecue, because that’s the way it has to be done.”

He lovingly recalls his mother preparing delicious picked tongue served with salad and chimichurri sauce, as well as boiled or fried yucca roots, otherwise known as cassava. Then there was his grandmother’s beloved spicy morcilla, a variation on black pudding. “In Venezuela we meet on the weekends for barbecue just like Australia. The only difference is we’d never use a gas barbecue, always coal and wood to get that aroma.”

Rekowski plans to offer several cuts from the same meat at the Gourmet Cinema event, including skirts, tongue and sweet breads, and hopefully morcilla too. “If I can’t get my hands on some I will make it for myself,” he says. “I would watch my grandmother make it at her house many times and I remember every bit of it.”

Liverpool, where the Powerhouse sits, is a multi-cultural hotspot where more than 140 different languages are spoken. Rekowski says events like the Barbecue lunch are ideal icebreakers. “Meals bring communities together and help them integrate with each other, enjoying their food and culture and talking about past experiences.”

Salleh, who grew up in Adelaide, agrees wholeheartedly. One of Barbecue’s scenes is shot in the coastal town of Moonta, 165km northwest of the South Australian capital, at a non-nonsense, free cook-up served at the local pub. “It was great to feature that moment in the film, a bit of a nostalgic remembrance of my youth,” Salleh says. “It’s interesting, because my father’s actually Malay, so on top of that I’ve also got memories of him doing satays on the coals.”

Barbecue expands on Salleh’s previous short Central Texas Barbecue, about generations of Texan pit masters. He pops back there and drops in with Miss Tootsie, an 81-year-old who has ben doing the job for decades. “We’d be getting up at 4am to film and grumbling a bit and she’s already up there hauling coals and moving giant 20-pound pieces of meat around.”

A younger man is gravely serious about his respect for the animals involved in the large-scale production of slow-cooked brisket - 24 cows and 30 pigs in one evening alone. “What was so fascinating, was these are everyday people just doing their thing but the amount of thought and consideration that goes into it, not just what they are doing but also what their place is in the world, is impressive,” Salleh adds. “There’s something maybe about watching meat cook on a slow flame that gets the mind thinking about the big questions in life.”

Barbecue also heads to South Africa, where unique variations on the tradition sprung up during the enforced separation of Apartheid, but the similarities in shared love where absolutely the same. In Japan, where skewered-meat Yakitori are cooked ever so slowly on charcoaled wood that’s treated with an almost ceremonial reverence. In Armenia, the cooks at Khorovats down the first bite with a shot of vodka. For a nomadic family in Mongolia, 1000 miles from the nearest city, the meat is extracted from a marmoset or a goat and then placed back inside the carcass along with heated rocks, then blow-torched.

“Some of the cultures that we show in this film are some of the poorest in the world but they can put on a barbecues that would best us any day of the week,” Salleh says.

Perhaps most touching is a young man, Ahmed, who runs a Shawarma restaurant in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, just across the Jordanian border. “He was 16 when he started at one of these joints back in Syria and now he’s developing his craft, creating wonderful food with whatever ingredients he can get together and hopes one day to return, but whilst he’s there he provides not just a meeting place for the community but something that reminds them of home and can give them hope,” Salleh says. “That was very powerful, how simple things can mean so much to people.”

The Sydney Film Festival runs 7-18 June. For more details about the Gourmet Cinema Barbecue event at the Sydney Film Festival, click here. Film-only tickets for all three screenings are also available.

BBQ time
Barbecued brick jerk chicken

Using a brick to press down a butterflied chicken while it's on the grill is a great way to ensure the chook is cooked evenly and achieves the quintessential crispy skin without blackening.

Barbecue tandoori-style chicken

“This is a truly delicious way to eat chicken whether it is sunny or not. There are no tricks except a long marinating time and the chicken becomes really juicy. If you like the red of tandoori chicken, you can add some food colouring to the marinade, but I prefer the flavours as they are and don’t miss the colour so I’ll leave it to you. I serve this with the green herb chutney.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories

Barbecued octopus with tahini sauce (izgarada ahtapot)

I love the charred flavours of barbecued octopus, with this smooth tahini sauce on top. The tahini sauce is also beautiful with barbecued squid or cuttlefish, or a fillet of barbecued fish.

Barbecued beef ribs (galbi)

Literally meaning ‘rib’ in Korean, galbi refers to a type of barbecued rib dish, usually beef or pork. Galbi barbecue restaurants are found all over Korea, as well as parts of the United States, where there are large Korean communities.

Barbecue chicken skewers, green lentils and pastirma

The origins of this dish come from Turkey and the Middle East, while the marinade is traditionally from the south east of Turkey, where they marinate meat in yoghurt, especially chicken. The yoghurt works exactly like lemon because of its high acidity, so the cultures make the meat softer, more mellow. Thus, anything you marinate in lemon, you can also do with yoghurt. What’s important is that you use chicken thigh fillets, some people go for the breast but I don’t understand it. Nobody in Turkey does because the fat is important for taste. Pastirma is a spiced cured beef. I’m not ultra nationalist when it comes to food, but yoghurt and pastirma are Turkish through and through.

From the farm: Barbecue
Matthew makes the most of the last rays of sunshine and warm weather before autumn kicks in on Puggle Farm, and heads outside to cook over a flame.