The return of cooking over wood

by Gautam Raja

I’m standing in the sun in a sweaty T-shirt and hiking hat, my hands are blackened, and charcoal smoke gets in my eyes as I lift a lid and stir a bubbling dish. The scene makes me remember my aunt in Dubai who is an amazing cook. One of her many signature dishes is “handi mutton”, a slow-cooked lamb or goat dish named after the round-bottomed vessel it’s made in. As integral to the recipe as the meat itself, is the fact that it’s cooked outdoors over wood. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or if a sandy wind is blowing: handi mutton is not handi mutton if made indoors on the gas stove.

My aunt says there’s a special energy and magic when the dish is cooked over wood. It isn’t just that smoke gets into the pot and flavour the ingredients—there was something more that was imbued by this ancient cooking process.

I have long dreamed of heading out into the backyard to cook like this. Not barbecue or grilling, cooking methods understood to be over smoke and under sun, but regular cooking: a chicken curry maybe, perhaps even a long-cooked daal. Recently, with guests due for the weekend, I took a meat curry recipe outside the house to be cooked in a cast-iron wok over a charcoal fire.

I saw what my aunt was saying. Food seems to understand wood fire, and cooking over one feels less like a fight between food and flame, and more like a collaboration. Recipes cooked over wood inspire you to do everything right, such as toasting spices and hand grinding them. As you cook, the sun shines down into the pan, a breeze blows over it. The fire rises then ebbs, the smoke swirling in to check on every step. The cook’s rhythm too, slows and eases. My aunt would sit, sometimes in the blazing heat of a Dubai day, and spend a couple of hours just getting the base ingredients cooked down to that perfect caramelised unctuousness. She knew from the sounds alone when to adjust the flame or stir the ingredients. It took a good part of the day, but when ready, handi mutton was not just delicious, but somehow deeply “right”.

While I had minor changes for the next round with my wood-fired curries, they had the same rightness to them. I loved how they were held together by a deep charcoal flavour, giving eaters a sense of the flame that had cooked their food.

I’m sure you could quantify this magic, and identify how it’s a combination of the right kind of radiant heat delivery with no hot spots, an envelope of hot air, and of course that flavoring smoke. I’m sure you could find that a cook who takes the time to cook over wood has committed to a certain level of care and attention. That being outside makes it harder to be distracted by televisions and sofas. An utterly rational look at the “magic” of cooking over wood would probably attribute it to novelty, heat distribution, extra attention, and finally, some flavour from the smoke itself.

“We used to cook everything like this,” my wife’s mother observed. Not even a generation later, the economic and infrastructural necessity of cooking over wood is a fashionable, Instagrammable, conscious choice to slow down and live “analogue”. And for a few hours, even though I’m thinking about the right hashtag for my cooking photos, it works. Somewhere in between frying the onions and finishing the recipe with a traditional black vinegar, I was actually happy, and I think my dishes knew.

First published in Gulf News, August 15, 2017