Sautéed not Stirred


posted by Pallu Newatia on August 13th, 2020

Cooking is an amalgamation of many elements coming together in the right proportions to achieve the final result, of these, Fire plays the most important role. Though there are instances of curing meats and vegetables in citrus in a lot of cultures and cuisines, fire still remains the main stay of cooking all across the globe.

Humans have been cooking food on open fire for centuries, as I read somewhere, that it all began when a farmer's hut burnt down, along with the sty which was connected to it and the farmer's child poked his finger in the sow to check if she was alive and then happened to lick his finger. He loved the taste so much that he went about burning their next few houses too, the taste caught on in the entire village, till the villagers realised that they could get the same flavour if they simply cooked the pig on the fire and did not need to go about burning houses for the same.

Not sure if this story is true, but sure seems interesting.

Though almost all across the world open fire is still used to some extent to cook food, the best Pizzas are the ones cooked in a wood fired oven, Kebabs are not the same till they have been cooked on open charcoal embers which give them their smokey flavour, same goes for Hamburgers. Closer home, Tandoori Rotis and Naans cooked on gas stoves can never compete with the ones cooked in a tandoor.

A small group of modern day chefs are realising the joy of cooking on an open fire. It takes one back to the basics where you need to understand the force of fire and work along with it, there are no knobs and buttons to reduce or increase the temperature and flame, the chef has to comprehend and fathom the energy and tame the blaze, its almost like getting one with nature and working in tandem with it.

It involves a deep understanding of what group of food react to what amount of heat and how much heat brings out the right flavours in a particular produce.
Francis Mallamann from Argentina is a trail blazer in the art of cooking on open fire, he has mastered the technique to the perfect degree, (literally).
Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, Berkley is not only an advocate for local sustainable agriculture but also champions the cause of promoting rustic and regional dishes which are cooked on a charcoal grill and wood burning oven.
Amninder Sandhu of Arth, Mumbai is the first restaurant of the city and maybe of the country, which boasts of a gas free kitchen, where she adheres to the various methods of slow cooking either on charcoal or wood.

Besides cooking on the open fire, cooking in an underground pit is another very ancient form of cooking, the presence of such cooking pits is a key sign of human settlement often sought by archeologists.

It is amazing to note that the very same practise still prevails from as far as New Zealand to the Americas.
It involves digging a hole in the ground and lining the pit with embers, which are then covered with local vegetation, this not only provides moisture to the food, but also lend their flavour to it, thus defining different flavours from area to area depending on the vegetation, the meat and vegetables are laid out on the vegetation, which are then covered and finally topped with earth and left to cook for a few hours.

In India, cooking a stuffed Rabbit in a pit is still a delicacy and in the earlier days was much enjoyed by the royalty.

Called a Hāngi in New Zealand, handed down by the Māori, it's almost a ritual celebrated with a gathering of family and friends, so much so, there's a saying that if you have done a Hāngi with a stranger, you've pretty much bonded for life.

In Mexico and Southern America its much more prevalent, going by different names, such as Barbacoa in the Carribean and Huatia in the Andes, where its the way the Andeans convey their thanks to Mother Earth for the harvest of the season. 

What is remarkable is that this ancient art of cooking was so extremely scientific and aligned with nature, it not only captured the flavour of the meat or vegetable being cooked, but intensified it with the flavour of the region thus defining a cuisine of the locality or an area. It used the local flora and fauna to the best advantage ensuring minimum wastage and sustainability. It preserved the nutrients of the produce and encouraged pure and clean flavours and textures as minimum amount of seasonings and additives were used in this form of cooking. 

It was slow cooking taken to the next level. None of the modern day ovens or cooking implements can even come close to developing flavours like the pit ovens and open fire.

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