Like a lot children, back in the day I was an imp around fire. I just loved burning stuff, and along with a like-minded friend, even volunteered for bin duty at primary school as a means of gaining access the incinerator. Oh the fun we had, and the things we burned! It came to an abrupt and detention-laden end though, when said friend managed to ignite one of his shoes. This would have been fine if he hadn’t been wearing the shoe at the time and run screaming to a duty teacher in a cloud of acrid black smoke. I was informed by Mrs Crabbe (the comically named then Head Mistress) that I had ‘really cooked my goose’. Little did she know that I’d grow up to cook quite a few geese…
So I stopped burning stuff and found other ways to misbehave.
I think everyone has fire bug tendencies. How else do we explain the ubiquity of BBQ? Shortly after we bought our house, I wasted no time in purchasing a gas BBQ. It hadn’t been an option at the place we’d been renting, so by the time we moved in, I was hanging out to singe some meat. It was great too, at first. BBQs became a bi-weekly thing during that first summer. I grilled whole fish, butterflied chickens, indulged in all manner of skewered morsels and discovered the joys of flame grilled vegetables.
But as much as I revelled in all of this- the process and results, I found it somehow lacking, good but never great. It just wasn’t quite the BBQ flavour of my mind’s eye. So my interest waned. The rain cover came off less and less often and eventually, a couple of season’s back- it stopped coming off altogether.
I’d meant to do something about this- splash out on something bigger, better and crippling pricey, but life got in the way. I was made redundant from my day job and launched myself into the peaks and troughs of freelance writing. And then Olive (my daughter) arrived, bulldozing all other priorities into triviality as children are wont to do…
But then a couple of months back I happened upon a FaceBook posting from Barry Wah Lee (of Wah Lee, the great and ancient Chinese emporium in Auckland ) advertising ‘stick-food Hibachis’ (pictured in action above). A hibachi- as if you didn’t know- is a Japanese firebox, designed for tabletop charcoal grilling. Take note: charcoal. Not gas. The version in question is only really a hibachi in the loosest sense of the word as it isn’t suitable for indoor use and has been specifically designed for satay grilling. These long, narrow metal troughs are a common site on street corners all over South East Asia, and the eye-stinging, delicious smoke they produce is a fond memory of many a traveller.
So I shelled out a ridiculously modest $45 for the 60cmX15cm box, bought a bag of charcoal, marinated some free-range pork strips and promptly fell wildly in love again with flame, smoke and the breezy delights of outdoor cooking
It seems too obvious, but charcoal is the secret ingredient in the very best BBQ food. Charcoal produces richly flavoursome smoke and intense, consistent heat. Gas does neither.
As a fue,l charcoal is not as cheap as gas, but it is much safer to use. It cannot leak, explode or silently asphyxiate. To prime it for cooking you need only a splash of methylated spirit, a match and a spare 10 minutes for the flames to die down and the heat to build up. With a full load of charcoal the satay grill will burn furiously for up to 90 minutes, cooking more satay than any family could reasonably consume. I hear satay parties are all the rage in the States right now…
Oh and the flavour- If you’ve been raised or weaned onto gas in recent decades, the flavour of real charcoal-grilled food will knock you sideways. It’s as different to gas-grilled as margarine is to butter
If satay isn’t your thing (which is frankly, quite odd), one of those old fashioned tripod BBQs will do. You don’t even need to buy one, just take a cruise around your neighbourhood during the next inorganic collection. I guarantee you’ll find one, or several. Take comfort while furtively stuffing it into your boot, that it will yield far superior results to whatever hooded chrome behemoth has replaced it.