Gardens and balconies have become the centre of activity, as families are discovering the joys of barbecuing
There is something meditative about sitting with people who matter and watching food slowly sizzle; especially in these times, when our social lives have shrunk suddenly and painfully.
With social distancing in place, cities under successive lockdowns since March, WFH and cooler weather, COVID-19 has inadvertently revived old-fashioned family bonding over barbecues in the garden or on small balconies.
“What started as a trial has evolved into a weekend ritual,” says Dhruv Ramachandran, a Law student in Delhi, who has been home in Chennai since the virus outbreak. With time on hand, Dhruv decided to experiment with the barbecue set his father ordered online. He cooks with his dad —a barbecue enthusiast — and the duo has tried out Iranian kebabs and Peshawari grills among a host of other recipes using chicken, mutton and seafood. For Dhruv, the process is more about spending quality time with family on the verandah in his backyard. Delicious food is a bonus.
A lot of Indians have been setting up grills at home over the past few years. The equipment, charcoal, accessories, meat and marinade can be bought online. “You learn how to marinate the meat, ignite the coal, and cook the meat… all through trial and error,” says Sayan Majumdar, a manager working with an MNC in Kolkata, who took to grilling during the lockdown, experimenting with what he has learnt from watching American barbecue shows. “For humid Kolkata weather, evenings are the only good time to do this though,” says Sayan, who has his grill on the balcony.
“I learnt the technique of brining, which is immersing the meat in water infused with salt, brown sugar, herbs, chilli flakes and sometimes, vinegar. The meat soaks in the flavours and works well,” he says.
- The type of wood added to the coal embers in a barbecue enhances the flavour of the meat. Apple, cherry, maple and mesquite wood are the most sought-after. Since trees such as maple and mesquite are not available in India, barbecue enthusiasts source it through friends. Some get creative, using wood of native fruit trees and even chicory, for their distinctive flavours.
Ever since the lockdown, Shaun George Joseph says his Kochi-based brand Pepe Bbq, has seen a spike in sales. “I’ve been getting a lot of queries about smaller barbecue grills,” he says, adding that this period has been more productive than he expected. He asked a vendor to make stainless steel equipment and now has a range that starts at ₹800 and goes up to ₹5,000. Shaun says his customer profile has become more varied. “I used to get younger people — picnickers and college students. Recently, two elderly neighbours, who have been playing cards since the lockdown, came here looking for a grill as they wanted to add some barbecuing to their game nights,” says Shaun.
For lockdown grillers, it is a DIY food adventure. But barbecuing extracts a certain amount of commitment, says Sampurna Gupta Chatterjee, a Delhi-based lawyer whose barbecues are a yearly calendar event for her friends. Every New Year’s eve, she hosts a barbecue on her apartment terrace. “It requires a lot of patience as you need to watch over the meat as it cooks slowly. It is not like you can toss the meat on the grill and forget all about it,” she says. Igniting the coal is the crucial part, and then comes maintaining the temperature, all the while checking on the meat. “Doing a barbecue in Delhi winter itself is a challenge, but that is the fun of it,” says Sampurna.
Purists point out that barbecuing is often confused with grilling. While the former is smoking the meat in indirect hot air, the latter is cooking the meat on direct heat, says Bengaluru-based Roy Abraham Varghese, a marketing communications professional, who has been barbecuing for the past 15 years. Pitmaster Roy says he learnt the fine art through sheer practice.
Roy Abraham Varghese with pork rib rack
“It is a vast area. One needs to understand the meats and the cuts. The wood added to the coal embers brings out the entire flavour profile of the meat,” he says. While Roy picks pork butt as his favourite, fillet mignon and tomahawk are his pieces de resistance. He helps those starting out with basic techniques and tricks. Roy’s weekends are devoted to barbecue, and the lockdown gave more time to explore his passion.
While sourcing good meat is a problem in India, pitmasters have found their way around the challenge. Joel Rebbi from Kochi showed his butcher YouTube videos of the specific cuts he wanted. Days of trial and error later, he got the butcher to deliver the right cut. The quality of the meat may not match up to international standards, but to make a brisket in spite of the constraints is rewarding, says Joel, who devoted four years just to master the brisket. “Initially, it felt like chewing on bark, but now it melts in the mouth,” he says. Beef, he adds, is one of the most difficult meats to barbecue.
“It isn’t only about mulling over meat; why not some beet?” asks Bijal Hindocha, a homemaker from Chennai, who says vegetables such as zucchini, broccoli, carrots and beetroot work very well in a barbecue. . “Let’s think beyond potato and paneer. A char-grilled zucchini tastes just as wonderful. So also, broccoli” says Bijal, who tried grilling beetroot recently. Her malai broccoli is a family favourite. Indian spices work very well, she adds. Bijal flavours the oil with spices before grilling the vegetables and says it is a great way to enhance the flavour. For vegetatrians, eggplant, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms are other options.