• Earth ovens are tradition world-over that bring communities together to make the most of mother nature. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
History shows we have an eternal love for keeping it simple in the kitchen. Long may it last.
By
Dominic Ryan

1 Sep 2021 - 1:54 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2021 - 1:54 PM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm, or stream it free on SBS On Demand. Catch the one-pot dinner episdoe Friday 3 September. ---

 

Ah, the one-pot dinner; the culinary blessing for those of us who want the fun part of cooking without the washing up. 

However, not so long ago, the browny-orange crock pot found in grandma's kitchen was cast into the shadows. Elaborate cooking appliances and accompanying recipes took their place; low-key became uncool.  

Ironically, once complex cooking became a trend, it facilitated the return to the basics, much to the delight of exhausted and novice cooks in all corners. Indeed, one-pot recipe groups on Facebook now boast hundreds of thousands of members. 

However, easy cooking has been around for a long time. In fact, well before the crock-pot conception, humans have cooked sans saucepans and trays with the most marvellous of results. If anything, we're making life more complicated by using one pot, since we overlook something even better: using no pot. 

MAKING COOKING EASY
Hokkaido salmon chanchan

This is one of the easiest and fastest dinners you could imagine. This simple fisherman’s dish hails from Hokkaido, known in Japan for its seafood and dairy. 

Chakchouka

This one-pot Middle Eastern favourite makes an easy, quick meal. 

Fasitau Ula, who works at the Samoa Tourism Agency, tells SBS Food, "Umu is an earth oven and it's a traditional way to cook Samoan food.

"Fire woods are piled on earth with rocks on top until the rocks are red hot. Prepared food will then be spread on hot rocks and covered with leaves for about an hour."

That's right; no pots.

"Any food can be cooked in the umu," Ula continues. "Traditional ones are taro (root-like potatoes), palusami (coconut cream in young taro leaves), fresh fish (normally wrapped in banana or breadfruit leaves and coconut leaves), fresh free-range pigs, fresh free-range chickens etcetera."

You can cook a range of meat in an earth oven.

Doing away with crockery and cooking in the earth endows Samoa's produce with a seductive smoked flavour that's mellowed out by lashings of fresh coconut milk.

Umu is synonymous with community; it's perfect for feeding a crowd. Ula says that umu features at big family gatherings, weddings, funerals and when villages host guests. 

"Umu is usually [prepared] on Sundays, because it's when family come together for feast and gatherings."

Earth ovens are tradition world-over that bring communities together to make the most of mother nature.

Samoans aren't the only ones who use the earth as their pot, it's a tradition world-over that brings communities and cultures together to highlight the best of mother nature.  

In Peru, a Quechua-style of cooking known as pachamanca (earth pot), involves cooking meats, including guinea pig, in an earth oven with hot rocks, covered with plantain leaves. Chile's curanto is similar in style, with a focus on preparing seafood, veggies and meats in a hole covered with massive pangue leaves.

"Fire woods are piled on earth with rocks on top until the rocks are red hot. Prepared food will then be spread on hot rocks and covered with leaves for about an hour."

New Zealand has hāngi, Hawaii has kalua and the New England region of the US has clambake. Closer to home, Australia also has a long history of cooking in the earth, including cooking in amai pits in the Torres Strait.

Aaron Fa'Aoso, host of SBS Food program Strait to the Plate, explains in one episode: "This fire has been heated with stones taken from the riverbed, and it's putting out a lot of heat." A traditional amai pit is prepared for a roast pig by the beach. It's an idyllic way to eat.

Australia also has a long history of cooking in the earth, such as cooking in amai pits in the Torres Strait.

However, even though earth cooking doesn't require pots, it does require preparation and patience. "Over an hour or so, the fire [burns] low and the rocks [absorb] all the heat," Fa'Aoso says. "When the fire dies, the super-heated rocks drop down to the coals and we're ready to cook."

The meat is placed atop a grill, and a heap of palm leaves are positioned around the meat to protect it. As with umu, the amai gives the food a smoky aroma. Both are also centuries-old techniques.

"This particular practice of cooking food has been amongst our people for many thousands of years," Fa'Aoso says.  

Similarly, Samoa's umu isn't going anywhere. "Not at all!" says Fasitau. "Umu is always the preferred way of cooking and every family does so at least once a week."

THE COOK UP WITH ADAM LIAW
Quick chicken tikka masala

Its hotly debated origins are a source of continual contention in the food world, but this particular version is all about a quick, easy way to achieve a delicious curry on any weeknight, using dried spices you are sure to have in your pantry. 

Adam Liaw's onion vinaigrette

I don’t think you really get to choose your signature dish. It gets chosen for you by the people who eat your food. I never set out to make a salad dressing as a defining dish but the fact of the matter is, everyone who tries this asks for the recipe. 

 

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