• Paperbark barramundi and saltbush wild rice (Destination Flavour)Source: Destination Flavour
From paperbark-wrapping in Australia, to the tandoors of India and charcoal grills of Portugal, here’s how fish gets all fired up.
Bron Maxabella

24 Sep 2018 - 11:53 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2020 - 2:55 PM

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.”

Charcoal grilling

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.

Wood fire not just for pizza

Fish cooks lightning fast in a wood-fired oven, retaining its fresh flavour and colour. In Italy, whole fish is roasted standing up in a heavy cast-iron pan surrounded by vegetables, or baked Sicilian-style, slathered in a thick sauce.

In Croatia, coals are heaped on top of a traditional one-pot dish with a domed lid (peka) to intensify the heat and flavour, as in this octopus peka recipe.

The Greeks are famous for their wood fired, slow-roasted lamb dishes, but fish baked whole in the wood-fired oven is also common throughout this coastal nation. Fish is often marinated in lemon and spices and baked in the marinade to keep the fish succulent.

Back to the earth oven

Fish and other seafood have been cooked underground for thousands of years, particularly in Pacific island nations and Indigenous Australia. An earth oven steams, roasts and barbecues all at once, resulting in a unique flavour and exceptionally juicy seafood.

The Indigenous Australian kup murri method results in a smokier flavour than the hāngī.

In the Māori hāngī, volcanic stones are heated for hours in a hot fire until visibly white with heat. They are then placed in a shallow pit and baskets of wrapped food are placed on top of the stones. Fish was traditionally wrapped in flax leaves, but these days cloth sacks or foil generally do the trick. Wet sacks are placed around the baskets before the earth is returned to the hole around the sacks, completely covering the hole to allow steam to build and cook the food.

The Australian Indigenous earth oven, called a kup murri, uses a similar style except the fire is lit inside the oven and left to burn down. Charcoal, therefore, remains in the pit along with the hot stones, which retain the fire’s heat to do the cooking. In a kup murri, the wrapped food is placed directly onto the stones, not in baskets as in the Māori hāngī and large leaves (such as banana leaves) are layered on top of the food before the wet sacks are placed. With this method, the kup murri results in a smokier flavour than the hāngī.

And that's a paperbark wrap

The bark of Melaleuca species has been widely used in traditional Aboriginal cooking for centuries. Sheets of paperbark are washed, then soaked in water before fish, meat or vegetables are laid on top. The bark is then wrapped around the food and tied with string. Paperbark protects fish from the heat of the coals or earth oven and adds an earthy, smoky flavour. If you haven’t got a handy Melaleuca tree nearby, you can buy paperbark on a roll from speciality retailers.

Maeve O'Meara is back in Food Safari Water 7.30pm, Wednesdays on SBS and then you can catch-up on all episodes via SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.

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