Feature Now that the alfresco dining season is finally upon us, three local experts tell all on the art of the perfect barbecue.
Gurus of the grill
"I'm jealous when I see people doing it, and I want to stop and do it myself," sighs Alexandre Kachan, a wistful look flooding his big chocolate-brown eyes. The Brazilian sous chef at Chamas Churrascaria isn't talking about cruising down the Corniche in a luxury sports car or scoring a match-winning goal for his favourite football team. The "it" in question refers to the humble alfresco barbecue, one of the simpler pleasures in life that no Brazilian - or sane human, for that matter - should ever have to live without.
Thankfully, whether you're Brazilian or otherwise, opportunities for barbecues on the beaches, in the parks or in the vast desert landscapes of the UAE are plentiful. Now that the weather is perfect for lazy outdoor afternoons spent grilling and eating with family and friends, I've come to Abu Dhabi's only Brazilian rodízio-style restaurant to ask an expert how it's done properly. And it looks like I've got the right man. While Kachan animatedly runs through what seems like a butcher's back story of cuts, joints, chops and other assorted meat products, it becomes clear that barbecuing is in his blood.
"We believe every cut of meat has a different taste, and when we marinate it we lose that taste. For example, a rib-eye beefsteak is very fatty inside and it gives a different taste because it comes from a different part of the animal. Then there's what we in Brazil call picanha, which is also known as a rump-cover beefsteak. It's very tender, and it has a very nice layer of fat on the top, which gives it a great taste. The fat keeps it moist. So as a rule in Brazil we don't marinate, we just sprinkle sea salt on to the meat."
No marinades? I can do that. But, of course, for every rule there's an exception, as Kachan is only too keen to divulge. "We do marinate some things overnight. We'll only marinate beef if it's in smaller cubes, otherwise the meat is too big to let the flavour in. The most popular marinade in our restaurant is made with non-alcoholic beer, garlic, parsley, salt and olive oil," he reveals, as my mouth begins to water. "I also like to make lamb shoulder and marinate it in mint sauce, but not a sweet mint sauce. We make it with olive oil, vinegar, chopped onions, parsley, mint leaves and a little bit of honey - just to break the acidity and not to make it sweet."
As skewer-wielding chefs dart about the Chamas kitchen like medieval swordsmen in search of a battle, I ask Kachan if meat is the only thing to be found at a traditional Brazilian barbecue. "In Brazil our daily dish is rice and beans, which is obligatory. And we also have farofa, which is like a Brazilian type of couscous, but very different in taste. Brazilians make it out of manioc flour or tapioca, but here in the UAE we use semolina. Whenever we have a holiday or a family party, we always serve farofa. It goes very well with the juices of medium-rare beef because it's a dry dish." Somehow, I knew we'd get back to the subject of meat, sooner rather than later.
After all this talk of alfresco food, I ask Kachan where he likes to go for a barbecue. "I've been here in Abu Dhabi for just over a year, straight from Sao Paulo, but I haven't had a chance to have a barbecue outdoors yet," he admits regretfully. When a man whose culture is practically basted in the juices of chargrilled meat says words like that, the heartbreak is palpable. "Barbecues are very big in Brazil," he continues. "Every state in Brazil has a speciality, but barbecue is the only thing that unites the culture. It's the same everywhere, and it should taste the same."
While Brazilian barbecuing has a uniform style, the rich mix of cultures in the UAE means that what's on your backyard grill may be completely different to what's on your neighbour's. With this in mind, I pay Saurabh Malhotra a visit. The executive chef at Dubai's Options Indian restaurant brings a host of tandoori recipes to life in a setting that couldn't be any further from the average no-frills barbecue. His place of work may sparkle with crystal chandeliers and pristine white tablecloths, yet he's a big fan of the rustic outdoors approach.
"When I go home to India I have barbecues with my brothers and parents outside. It's the best thing," he tells me with a starry-eyed smile. "My parents say, 'OK, you've been in the restaurant industry for the last 10 years and you've cooked nothing for us - let's have a barbecue.' We go to the beach or the mountains and make a camp fire. We'll just carry a bag of wood charcoal, take the iron skewers, marinate everything at home."
Taking ingredients from a neatly arranged line of white china bowls, he shows me how to assemble a killer marinade for tiger prawns. His deft fingers create a concoction of ginger and garlic paste, chopped chilli and coriander, before the smothered prawns are lowered into a hot tandoor. "You can do the same with vegetables - broccoli, cauliflower, onions, peppers or mushrooms. For a different flavour you mix them with chaat masala powder from the supermarket, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. Just mix it all together, marinate for an hour, skewer the vegetables then put them on the barbecue."
Unlike the Brazilian method, it appears marinades are not only central to the flavours of an Indian barbecue, but they also help the cooking process. Malhotra explains: "If you marinate chicken or fish with lots of lemon juice and salt, it helps to cure it. Especially fish - it will only need a few minutes on the barbecue after marinating with lemon juice, ginger and garlic paste, salt and black pepper. In fact within three or four hours of marinating, the fish will be 'cooked' without cooking. Hammour, pomfret, salmon - any market fish is good."
I watch, spellbound, as the steaming skewer of paunchy prawns is removed from the tandoor. They are torrentially juicy, soft as satin, and packed with intensely creamy and smoky flavours. Sheer bliss. With two distinctive barbecue styles from South Asia and South America seemingly cracked, I decide to investigate a method that originated somewhat closer to my adopted home. Chef Saiid al Hady of Al Mawal Lebanese restaurant at the Hilton Abu Dhabi gives me the lowdown.
"Barbecue is different to grilling," he reminds me. "Grilling is a quick process for a steak or a hamburger, but a barbecue is a long process that requires time to have a juicy piece of veal or meat. A mild average temperature is essential here, and too much fire can result in too high a temperature. This can make your barbecued meat dry, rubbery or crispy." Wise words indeed, especially if you want to try Hady's lahm mashwi recipe, which combines succulent veal pieces with a spicy rub of cinnamon, white pepper, salt and sumac.
Where to buy Food and equipment Spinneys Fresh meat, fish and vegetables, ingredients for marinades, ready-skewered barbecue meats, bags of ice for cool drinks, barbecue fuels and equipment - it's all here. Locations in Abu Dhabi (02 694 8000) and Dubai (04 355 5250). Ace Hardware For the serious barbecue enthusiast, Ace has all kinds of equipment, from disposable to diplodocus-steak size grills. If you're really serious, Abu Dhabi, Mina Road (02 673 1665); Dubai Festival City (800 275 223). What to buy Fuel Weber Firespice Regular charcoal briquettes may impart a smoky hint, but these wood chips and chunks from Weber give that full-on barbecue flavour. The Hickory variety is ideal if you're cooking beef, ribs and chops, while the Mesquite wood is best for chicken, fish and vegetables. Soak some of the wood in water for two hours for the ultimate chargrilled flavour. Available from branches of Ace Hardware and Spinneys. Wizard Odourless Double Filtered Charcoal Starter If you can light a fire without using liquid fuel, by all means do so. Not only can liquid fuel be dangerous, but it can also impair the flavour of your food if used incorrectly. This fuel from Wizard, however, is odourless and meets strict air-quality standards. Available from Spinneys. Grill Spinneys Grill to Go We've yet to find a more convenient and practical portable barbecue than this. Available in a large and a smaller size - priced at Dh349 and Dh249, respectively - the Grill to Go folds neatly into a black canvas shoulder holdall and can be easily carried to the beach or park. It unfolds to offer a sturdy grilling platform with shelf space for plates. Perfect for a barbecue on the hop or at home.