I recently went camping with a big group of family friends. It was a lovely trip, owing in large part to the amazing food. We were fortunate enough to have some fantastic cooks in our group, and despite the pressure of 20 (rather discerning) mouths to feed, they rose to the challenge and made some delicious dishes. In particular, the dishes cooked over fire (Chilli Con Carne, Thai Green Curry and Lamb Biriyani to name but a few) were absolutely unreal. It also simplified the cooking process, and reminded me of how wonderful the basic, primal aspects of cooking can be.
The benefits of cooking over fire are there for all to see. The process of sitting by a campfire is very therapeutic – watching over and gently stirring or turning food with care is calming, and demonstrates a love for the food you are making. Additionally, the flavour is unlike anything else. The slight char of the crispy outside of a sausage or the flame grilled, smoky taste of a naan bread cooked over ashes is so unique, and much better than cooking them normally. Finally, it is an intrinsically social style of cooking. Fire has, throughout history, brought everyone together, and when applied to cooking, it allows others to be involved in the process, in turn teaching them about the method involved.
Not long ago, I watched a programme on Netflix called ‘Cooked’. The programme takes a philosophical look at food, and the role it plays within society, and I would recommend it to all foodies out there. The first episode, simply entitled ‘Fire’ looked at the role fire has played throughout history from a culinary perspective, and was incredibly interesting. It concluded that fire, and the ability it has in turning raw foods into ‘cooked’ foods, was what turned our ape ancestors into Homo Erectus. In this sense, they concluded that fire, and indeed cooking, is what makes us truly human.
While this might seem a bit over the top when discussing the bacon we ate for breakfast when camping, the principle is worth considering. In an age of useless kitchen gadgets, new food and health trends, and the next ‘lose 20kg in 2 days’ diet, I found using only a fire, a knife and a few delicious ingredients to create something wonderful was very satisfying.
This principle can be found in cuisines around the world, particularly in Carolina-style BBQ. It is, at its core, a very simple philosophy – cooking or smoking meat over fire. Of course it would be naive to suggest that the process does not require immense skill – BBQ experts and pit masters around the world create delicious marinades and cook meat much better than at your average summer BBQ. But the process and philosophy behind it remains straightforward, and the result is a fantastically unique style of cooking.
I should state at this point that I am not bashing new and inventive types of cooking. Quite the opposite, we should celebrate and learn from innovators like Yotam Ottolenghi, as without them, cooking would never progress, and we would be deprived of thousands of incredible new recipes and ingredients. Rather, I am trying to illustrate that we can learn a lot from the past, as well as the future. Instead of limiting ourselves to only the latest food trends, we should use aspects of both modern and historical cooking techniques and philosophies to help shape our diets.
Ultimately it boils down to an appreciation of the origins and the simplicity of certain food types and styles. It would of course be impractical and inefficient to cook everything on an open flame or using only hand sourced ingredients, but we can do little things to appreciate the philosophy of the food we eat. Whether its researching about certain historical cooking techniques, or just trying something the old fashioned way, there is a lot of joy to be found from taking inspiration from the past, and applying it in today’s world of food.
Much love as always,