Is barbecuing really cooking? The question was asked of me by a French dining companion during a recent a hedonistic weekend in Monaco. I had mentioned the humble barbecue in response to his earlier question about what constituted traditional Australian cuisine. I also mentioned pies (sorry folks), and rambled on about Australian food being influenced in the past by the mother country, and having cuckooed many a culinary tidbit from our Asian neighbours. Given the gastronomic heritage of the French I realised I was painting a picture of a lightweight culinary culture. So when I was grilled (excuse pun) about whether barbecuing really constituted cooking, I could see his point.
If one considers the act of ‘throwing another shrimp on the barbie’ — where edibles are randomly placed (and frequently forgotten) on a heated barbecue hotplate or grill — then the act of barbecuing probably shouldn’t be considered cooking. At best, it’s heating — and not always to the optimum temperature. At worst, it’s incineration — a charcoal-coated, soot-dusted, back-yard abomination.
But then I considered my own barbecuing efforts. Are the chilli beef burgers — made from scratch and moulded into patties by hand — any less of a cooking feat if they are barbecued outside, rather than pan-fried on the stove top? What about the whole snapper that I smother in home-made, hand-pounded Thai curry paste, wrap in banana leaf and place on a hot barbecue plate — is that anything less than cooking? Or the shoulder of pork that is slow cooked for hours in a roasting tin on a barbecue hotplate with the hood pulled down. The technique yields perfectly moist flesh and a chunky side of crackling — is that not cooking?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the word cook as follows: to prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by mixing, combining, heating ingredients. Thus, it’s what you do to the food before you plonk it on the barbecue that counts.
I asked Ben Farley, a classically French trained chef and founder of the BBQ Cooking School, what he thought.
“I refute the Frenchman’s comments,” he said, with a chuckle.
“I think people in the past probably had a bit of a perception that barbecue cooking was burnt snags, charred onions, dry steak, potato salad and a bread roll and that was the classic boring barbecue that was more like a sausage sizzle,” Farley said.
“But you’re not restricted at all with anything you can cook on the barbecue. You can cook a souffle, you can cook whole fish, you can cook a steak, you can cook pastries — there is nothing you can’t do, though it depends of course on the barbecue that you are using … you’re only as good as your equipment, more so your ingredients because regardless of how good your barbecuing is, if the quality of the product isn’t there, there is only so far you can go.”
Farley encourages people to be as creative as possible when it comes to barbecuing.
“I try to build the showman,” he said. “I want people to get bathed in glory a bit when they do something beyond the sausage!”
That’s all the encouragement i need. My own next barbecue adventure on Australia Day will feature barbecued ribs from Maeve O’Meara’s Food Safari cookbook. There are eight ingredients in the dry spice rub that they’re marinated in, along with several bottles of dark beer. They’re smothered in a 12-ingredient chipotle sauce before being barbecued. That constitutes cooking to me.
What are you cooking for your next barbecue? Or will you be sticking to the old sausage sizzle?