Smoking it up the traditional way

Sep 07, 2011, 10:17 IST | Prachi Sibal

While chefs in global kitchens are going gaga about smoking everything from mushrooms to meats in hay, traditional wood and charcoal fires and cooking with hay has always been part of the culinary journey in India. We got talking to chefs about making the most out of this global trend

The tradition of cooking in unconventional methods to induce a specific desired flavour in food dates back to the use of coal and cowdung in our villages or to the use of hay to smoke meat or seafood in Europe. Chefs in New York are going back to smoking up everything from lamb chops to veal to seafood to even conjuring up ice cream with hay and their Indian counterparts admit they have always had their favourites in coal being used for dum cooking.

Chefs admit to returning to traditional means occasionally for the taste

Rohan DSouza, Consultant Chef, Pepper Caf � and Opus who has tried the technique himself with salmon and cashews, too believes that cooking with hay can produce a unique smoky and fresh flavour that gas burners cannot replicate. "It works really well, mostly for seafood. The shell gets cooked and the meat has a smoky fresh flavour. I wrap the fish in banana leaf and then throw them into burning hay. The meat gets slightly char grilled due to intense cooking with smoke," he says. "The problem is that the technique is not conducive to a restaurant environment unless it is an outdoor one. Safety rules are stringent and the smoke can be overpowering," he adds.

Where is my hay? Hay is hot right now in global kitchens for smoking
meats and veggies.

While some believe in the concept of hay and other traditional means of cooking, there are some who put it into practice. Chef Sanjay Tyagi, Partner and Director, ASP Foods, cannot imagine his dal makhani cooked over a gas burner and opts to cook it over charcoal sigree.

"There is a lot of difference in taste and it aids digestion. Wood is better than coal and cowdung is even better as a fuel," he says. The fact, that he once had an accident at the Grand Hyatt Delhi where sprinklers placed on top of a sigree burst, doesn't discourage him. "There has to be a certain amount of adventure involved. I learnt my lesson and now keep the sigree smaller and placed right below the exhaust," says Tyagi.

Commerce counts
Traditional Indian methods of cooking include wood fires, cowdung, coal and others that are used to fire up or smoke delicacies. "These practices have faded off due to modern cooking equipment. However these flavors still remain favourites and cannot be duplicated to a greater extent," says Chef Arunava Mukherjee, Indian Specialty Chef, Courtyard By Marriott, Mumbai International Airport. Talking about replicating a rural setup in its mess-free form in a hotel environment, Chef Kedar Bobde, Executive Sous Chef, Grand Hyatt, Mumbai says, "One cannot replicate the exact setup in a commercial kitchen as it is challenging and impractical. But if need be, a similar set up can be created in the commercial kitchen.

Cooking with traditional methods has its set of challenges. The setup of commercial kitchen has its basic requirements of adequate space, exhaust and hygiene. Whereas, the setup required for traditional methods of cooking like cowdung or hay cooking in a regular kitchen may raise a few eyebrows. Regular availability with good quality is a concern as the market does not have a huge demand and there are no bodies to govern or control resources." These are the  challenges rural methods such as hay can pose in the kitchen and outside.

The health factor
Another aspect that Chef Mukherjee highlights is the health risk that fuels like coal can stand and the fact that the heat produced by rural methods can hardly be regulated to a desired temperature. Despite the disadvantages, chefs do admit that rural methods are less likely to be replaced due to their ability of retaining the flavour in food and giving it the much desired smoky taste.

Handbook (by Chef Kedar Bobde)
The type of fuel (wood/coal or hay) used adds immensely to the flavour. The smoke generated while cooking, due to burning of fat or smothered fuel, penetrates through the semi-permeable membrane of meat giving a strong and defined flavour to meat or food that is being cooked. The same can be done in a closed environment with a smoking chamber or home-style cooking by just covering the container with fuel and food to be smoked, keeping it all together.

Unconventional Indian methods of cooking
>> Hot Stone cooking
>> Cooking in a sand pit
>> Cooking with fresh soil
>> Cooking in a salt crust
>> Wood fire (for pizzas)
>> Cowdung
>> Coal (for barbeques and tandoor)

Precautions while using unconventional methods
>> No electrical equipment should be placed around the cooking apparatus
>> Beware of switch boards at close distance
>> Sprinklers should not be placed overhead
>> Fire alarms should be turned off
>> A powerful exhaust should be placed right above
>> The heat produced should be controlled
>> Open space kitchens are  preferred
>> The apparatus should not be left unattended at any time

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