The human race has been cooking over fire since time immemorial. And despite the countless shiny grills and gizmos available on the market, all one needs to barbecue is a heat source, raw ingredients and time.
While there's something wonderfully primal about relying on your senses to cook, the concept of barbecuing something "till it's done" can be daunting to some. Every barbecue set-up is different, with factors such as temperature, proximity to heat source, weight of ingredient, desired doneness and resting time all factors that need to be taken into consideration when lighting the barbie. None the less, some basic grilling principles hold true regardless of what's on the menu.
When cooking with charcoal, wait until the flames have died down before starting to cook. Ideally, light your fuel source in a charcoal chimney (stacking charcoal on top of each other helps it catch faster) and wait for it to turn slightly grey.
Also, if your barbecue is big enough, experiment with stacking different amounts of charcoal in different parts of the grill to create two different heat zones. Having different temperature areas will allow you to quickly move ingredients from warm to hot zones and vice-versa. Finally, remember the all-important resting phase after barbecuing something, especially if cooking larger proteins.
Go fast, then slow
Palisa Anderson of Sydney's Boon Cafe describes her late mother Amy Chanta's gai yang (grilled chicken) recipe as a "no-fail". So much so that it helped her woo her husband Matt — then her landlord — in Tokyo.
"It's so no fail that we've been married for 14 years now," laughs the star of SBS's Water Heart Food. "It's so delicious."
Featuring boneless chicken marinated in a mix of peppercorn, coriander root, turmeric, garlic, coconut milk and palm sugar — the sugar gives the chicken sweetness and helps it caramelise while cooking — this family recipe is the basis of the grilled chicken served at the various Chat Thai restaurants in Sydney. It's what Anderson would describe as Southern Thai-style. The giveaway is coconut milk as coconuts don't grow in the country's north. At Boon Cafe, the chicken is served northern, Issan-style: on the bone with no turmeric and coconut milk in the marinade.
Regardless of how you marinate your bird, Anderson believes successful grilled chicken — and the all-important crispy skin — comes down to a two-tiered approach cooking approach.
"You've got to be really cool with your heat because it caramelises quite fast," she says. "Either start off really hot then move it to a lower heat or bump up the heat at the end. The best thing ever, though, is if you start really high, and then you can finish it off in the oven, although no Thai person in their right mind would ever do that."
Although Chat Thai and Boon Cafe use a hybrid charcoal and gas burning Kosei grill from Japan, Anderson believes acceptable results can be achieved with hot griddle pan. She recommends home cooks spatchcock their bird and start skin-side down, then use a brick or something else that's heavy to weigh down the chicken while it's cooking. Don't skimp on the condiments either.
"With Thai barbecuing, it's all about the sauce," insists Andersen who serves grilled chicken with nam jim jaew, a hot and bitter chilli sauce from Thailand's north. Additionally, both the chicken and the sauce are filled with aromats such as finely shredded makrut lime leaf.
Fat is good
There are kebabs, and then there are Adana kebabs. Named after the southern Turkish city they originated in, the Adana kebab stars spiced, minced lamb moulded onto a flat, narrow metal shish and grilled over charcoal. Within Melbourne's Turkish community, the Adana kebabs served by Suphi Ukur at his store Katik Turkish Take Away in Campbellfield in the north of Melbourne, were legend. Following the sale of Katik to Ukur's former business partner, his son Emir is upholding the family tradition.
"Everything I learned about barbecuing, I learned from dad," says Emir, who opened Komur (Turkish for "charcoal") in Ascot Vale, north-west of Melbourne's CBD in 2019.
A two-metre charcoal grill sits at the heart of Komur and lends succulence, smoke and savour to lamb cutlets, skewers of diced lamb and chicken, and, of course, Adana kebabs. While the cut of lamb (shoulder, mostly), spice mix (capsicum and paprika are two ingredients Emir is happy to divulge) and choice of charcoal (mangrove) all help create a superior Adana kebab, equally important is the mix's fat content.
"Fat is flavour, texture and helps hold the meat together and stops the kebab from feeling crumbly," says Emir who aims for a 70-30 meat to lamb fat ratio in his Adana kebabs. In addition to keeping the meat juicy, rendered fat hitting the coals creates those all-important bursts of smoke.
"Fat is flavour, texture and helps hold the meat together and stops the kebab from feeling crumbly."
Depending on how hot the charcoal is, an Adana kebab at Komur takes between eight and 15 minutes to cook. In addition to turning the kebab and keeping an eye on the temperature — Emir keeps his grill at medium-hot — our man also squeezes each kebab around a third of the way through cooking: a vital step that, similar to making a smash burger patty, creates extra crunch, caramelisation and flavour in the finished kebab.
Keep it simple
Born in Monemvasia in the southern Greek region of Peloponnese, chef George Tsimpidis grew up around wood-fire cooking.
"As Greek people, we're always cooking with charcoal," says Tsimpidis, chef at Brika, a small Greek bar in Perth. "If my grandmother wanted to boil potatoes or bake bread, she'd use the wood-fire oven in her backyard."
"As Greek people, we're always cooking with charcoal."
Those family barbecues of yesteryear are referenced at Brika with charcoal-grilled calamari, octopus and whole fish among the offerings on the menu. Following the lead of his parents and grandparents, Tsimpidis doesn't marinate his seafood before grilling, preferring to keep the spotlight on the ingredient.
"We don't change flavours in Greek cooking, especially on the barbecue," he says. "If we're eating fish, we want to taste the fish. Same with octopus. We don't add vinegar or marinade things for hours."
Brika's one-and-a-half metre charcoal grill features two dedicated cooking zones for seafood. For fish and octopus, Tsimpidis prefers using a medium heat zone.
The fish gets grilled for three minutes each side and is only flipped once during cooking; the octopus, meanwhile, is poached in a pot with bay leaf, peppercorns and a little red wine over low heat before being finishing on the grill. The hotter heat zone, meanwhile, is reserved for cooking the calamari. The secret, says Tsimpidis, is leaving the skin on to preserve the squid's oceanic savour.
Once cooked, the seafood at Brika is finished one of two ways. The fish and calamari get hit with ladolemono, a lemon and olive oil sauce commonly served with seafood in Greece, while the fish is served with gremolata, the Italian sauce made with lemon, parsley and garlic.
These ribs are marinated in spicy chipotle and sticky maple syrup for a finger-licking finish. Sure, baked potatoes are great just with butter, but this bonanza line-up of toppings elevates the humble spud to glorious new heights. This is a great way to make the most of the excellent seafood we have in Australia. The aromatic coconut sauce compliments the fish so well and gives it a real South East Asian twist. If you didn’t want to use a whole fish, you could use fillets, or serve the sauce and salad with barbecued Aussie prawns.
These ribs are marinated in spicy chipotle and sticky maple syrup for a finger-licking finish.
Sure, baked potatoes are great just with butter, but this bonanza line-up of toppings elevates the humble spud to glorious new heights.
This is a great way to make the most of the excellent seafood we have in Australia. The aromatic coconut sauce compliments the fish so well and gives it a real South East Asian twist. If you didn’t want to use a whole fish, you could use fillets, or serve the sauce and salad with barbecued Aussie prawns.