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The barbecue scene at London Fields is a pathetic, piddling thing. Even though today’s newsletter by Helen Graves is about making barbecue accessible, making sure everyone feels comfortable learning how to grill, I’m going to slightly swim against that and say there is nothing sadder than the wave of smoke caused by the nouveau-Hackneyites cooking burgers and halloumi on their disposable barbecues. London Fields is the end point of British barbecue culture, an afterthought, a lazy opportunism to cook some food outside that could have very easily (and probably more evenly) been cooked inside. Yet move south to another park and you will find the true epicentre of London’s barbecue culture, one that is played out in a space that blurs both public and private settings. I am, of course, talking about the barbecues at Burgess Park.
Burgess Park is London’s great urban park. Described only yesterday by Stephen Buranyi as an “unfinished late Soviet-era public space in sub-urban Łódź”, it is precisely its unfinished-ness and artificiality that makes it interesting. No other park engages with and bleeds into the city the way Burgess does. Most parks exist as places of respite, of escape from the city, but Burgess is different. Burgess Park constantly reminds you that you are still in the city. At every vantage point you can see vistas of the city that don’t quite resolve: the spire of St George’s Church, the tip of the Shard, the soon to be wreckage of the Aylesbury. The park constantly moves from greenery to concrete, from the city back into non-city: in a way it is merely a green extension of the Walworth and Old Kent Roads. The park is littered with out of place detritus that shouldn’t be there, making it look like a south London version of Tarkovsky’s Zone: little painted houses, a bridge to nowhere, a lime kiln, a BMX bike run, hundreds of fucking crows, and around half a dozen or so permanent barbecues.
Being at the confluence of west African, Caribbean and Latin American communities, Burgess Park is perfectly placed for the most astonishing barbecue scene in the city. People get here early, reserving the barbecues with bags of coals. By the afternoon on a sunny day the barbecue area is heaving with people, grilling suya, jerk chicken and churrasco. This is serious barbecue. Walk through the park in the late afternoon and you might see a music video being filmed; amble through in the evening, even when the sun has gone down, and you will still find the music going ─ Bolivianos dancing in full gear mixed with the sound of Phantom echoing the words ‘oh baby, your body’s on fire’ on Burna Boy’s Ye. When I first saw it in full flow I couldn’t quite believe it was London, but it seemed like everything that was still interesting about it all gathered in one place.
This was a story I pitched to Helen and Pit Magazine last year, and this summer I was set to write about it in depth ─ but things obviously got in the way. The barbecues are still shut, and I personally wont consider the pandemic over until they are back open. Until then, here is Helen’s guide on the diversity of London barbecue and some extremely useful tips to help you cook good food on a cheap set up, many of which have already helped me as I’ve sat in my back yard on a Weber, dreaming of smoke over Burgess Park.
An Accessible Guide to Live Fire Cooking, by Helen Graves
Growing up, my exposure to culinary cultures outside the UK was minimal save for what was filtered through the mainstream media; essentially, other people’s everyday food presented as exotica. I thought barbecue meant sausages and burgers cooked by my mate’s dad sweating into his novelty apron.
I had no idea of the diversity of live fire cooking until I moved to London, where I found an eclectic barbecue scene thriving in both public and private spaces. Visiting pockets of a city with the aim of tasting foods I’d only read about was a massive thrill: a sumac-laced Adana spitting from the grills of Green Lanes; a ghee-slicked naan blistered on the walls of an East End tandoor; an all-spice-scented gust from a jerk drum in New Cross. More recently: twenty of us piled into Camberwell’s Silk Road to work through fifty Xinjiang lamb skewers crusted with cumin; a hungover schlep to Islington’s Black Axe Mangal to hoover offal-topped wood-fired flatbreads; my first taste of suya on Peckham High Street followed by my second, my third, my one hundredth taste of suya on Peckham High Street. A gathering in the park among a hundred spiraling smoke coils of other families and friends; a backyard party; a wedding; a wake continuing long into the evening.
Despite this rich culture, there are two irritating and persistent narratives around ‘UK barbecue’. The first is that of my childhood: burnt bangers, unseasoned meat and mixed vegetable skewers; poorly cooked food, which is an afterthought or just something to ‘soak up the booze’. The second lives in the contrail of the current enthusiasm for American ‘low and slow’-style barbecue, which has brought with it a sort of private members’ club, open only to those who can afford a ceramic egg barbecue or know how to smoke a notoriously tricky piece of brisket. You’d be forgiven for thinking barbecue was invented by a bunch of middle-class guys posturing next to a tray of burnt ends.
There is a lot of off-putting messaging surrounding barbecue and it’s something I hope to contribute towards changing with Pit, a twice-yearly independent magazine I make with my friends Rob and Holly. We deliberately avoid calling it a ‘barbecue magazine’ because the term is so tethered to what we jokingly call ‘brobecue’ – meat and sauce with a side of midlife crisis.
With Pit, we celebrate the fact that humans have been cooking over fire for thousands of years and it can be easy to do. American barbecue – ever popular – wasn’t invented by those white bros arguing online about the Texas Crutch (wrapping meat in foil) but has its origins with enslaved Africans and Native Americans. It is not the preserve of the privileged but a global tradition. It is about food, fire and fresh air, which are – with the obvious caveats around space and access to ingredients – available to everyone.
Barbecue is ultimately about gathering people together but even when that's not been possible these past few months I’ve found it a salvation. My mini outdoor adventures have felt invigorating at a time when much agency has been taken away. Barbecue became one of the small ways in which I coped during lockdown and I want to share some tips. Inspired by some of my favourite London restaurants, it needs no special equipment or fancy ingredients. While top-end smokers, dry-aged steaks and Natoora vegetables are lovely, they’re also not accessible to the majority and barbecue should be inclusive.
If you don’t already have a barbecue then here is the easiest way to start.
What barbecue to get?
Ceramic barbecues are, honestly, great: they hold consistent temperatures for long periods of time and they’re very versatile. They’re also by no means necessary. Most people have a standard kettle barbecue like a Weber, which is best set up for what is known as ‘two-zone cooking’ – that basically means separating the coals so you have one hot area and one cooler area. I do this by banking the coals to one side of the barbecue, leaving the other side free. This means you can pull food across to the cooler side to cook more slowly, or keep it there while you finish cooking other bits. It’s a sensible setup and can help avoid the dreaded ‘black on the outside, raw on the inside’ scenario.
The easiest way to light a barbecue
A chimney starter will help you light a barbecue easily. It’s a metal cylinder with a handle; you place some scrunched up paper in the bottom and stack your coals on top before lighting it from underneath. Ten minutes after you light the coals in the chimney starter, they should be ready to tip out and use. A firelighter can help things along and natural ones are now widely available and will not taint your food like those horrible white sticks soaked in petroleum.
Seek out good quality British lumpwood charcoal if you can. The cheap, mass-produced stuff is soaked in chemicals, which need to be burnt off before cooking otherwise they will taint your food. There are now quite a fewpeople producing charcoal responsibly using sustainably sourced British wood. Good quality charcoal burns clean and will be good to cook over in around ten minutes.
Knead your kebab meat
I make minced lamb kebabs an awful lot but struggled to get the right texture for ages. One day I got chatting to the chef at my local Turkish restaurant, FM Mangal in Camberwell, and he told me that he kneads his kebab mixture in the bowl as if it were bread, which makes it hold together better. A few minutes or so of mushing it with the heel of your hand should do it – over-kneading will make the kebabs dense. You’re aiming for a ‘lacy’ appearance to the meat when it’s smeared across the bottom of the bowl and you’ll notice that the texture changes and becomes sticky. It’s a simple technique but totally worth it.
Try offset cooking
Many people think of their barbecue as a place to cook small pieces of protein like burgers or vegetables directly over the coals – and it is – but a simple kettle barbecue is also good for offset cooking. Most people will be familiar with the term ‘offset’ in association with expensive smokers but you don’t need any such equipment to cook larger pieces of meat, providing you set up your barbecue for two-zone cooking as described above. This works for large pieces of meat like pork shoulder although I also cook all chicken cuts except breast this way, and whole vegetables like aubergine. If you’re trying to recreate those glazed ribs from Smokestak then get yourself a rack of baby backs and cook them offset for a few hours (larger spare ribs will take longer). Personally, I can't stand ribs which fall off the bone so I cook them until they’re tender enough to bite through but still have some spring.
Grill your vegetables whole
When Berber & Q in Haggerston started serving whole cauliflowers cooked over fire, it blew people’s minds. Tender, charred and drowned in tahini sauce, they crackled with spices and juicy pops of pomegranate. Cut off the leaves and boil whole for ten minutes before finishing on the grill and raining down the seasonings. The Berber & Q recipe is handily available here should you wish to give it a go, but you can also try cutting a cauliflower into thick steaks, brushing with oil and grilling over direct heat for around five to ten minutes until nicely charred, before moving it to indirect heat until tender. Garlic, spices such as cumin and coriander and lots of fresh herbs work best in terms of flavours. You could also try scattering it with dukkah after cooking for textural contrast and extra flavour.
Cook jerk chicken over bay leaves
To be honest I can’t remember where I got this tip from, but jerk chicken rocks and my favourite comes from Tasty Jerk in Thornton Heath (its jerk pork is also incredible). Jerk is cooked over pimento wood in Jamaica and, although that’s available here now, it requires an online order. Luckily, bay leaf smoke closely mimics the lightly floral, spicy flavour. Soak a handful of bay leaves in water then use them as a ‘bed’ for your jerk chicken on the grill. I also throw my thyme stalks (left over from making the marinade) into the coals for extra smoke.
You don’t need a pizza oven to grill dough
Okay, so some of the best fired bread in London does come from pizza ovens. I’m thinking about the offal-topped flatbread at Black Axe Mangal or the pizzas at Theo’s in Camberwell. But! You can cook dough on any old barbecue. Flatbreads are particularly easy – just slap the dough on the hot grill. Top it while you’re cooking and you’ve got yourself a sort-of-pizza and had some fun in the process.
Use spices like a condiment
The first time I ate suya was at Obalende Suya Express on Peckham High Street (sadly now permanently closed – try Suuyar on Choumert Road or Tiwa n Tiwa in Peckham instead). Suya is native to the Hausa people of northern Nigeria, but is eaten across the rest of Nigeria as well as Ghana. It involves rubbing thin sticks or slices of meat with ‘yaji’, a mixture of salt, spices and ground peanut crackers which is also used as a garnish when serving. I loved the idea of dusting cooked skewers with fresh spices like this and promptly started doing it at home. You get pops of super fresh, uncooked spices which release their aromas as they hit the hot food and pop between your teeth. Toasted, cracked or ground spices such as cumin and coriander seed work well on lamb, or even squid. Use spices as a condiment to add extra punch to anything that’s grilled hot and fast.
Take tips from kushiyaki
One of my favourite pieces in Pit was by chef, restaurateur and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson. We gathered in his garden in Lewisham, where he’d fashioned a kushiyaki grill using two heatproof bricks bought on Amazon. Kushiyaki is the Japanese term for skewers, encompassing both poultry (known as yakitori) and non-poultry ingredients. Tim fed us a steady stream of asparagus wrapped in bacon, corn with togarashi, baby octopus, beef with hot mustard, garlic cloves cooked in butter inside a foil parcel and even hash browns, which Tim considers an essential side dish. My point here is that just about anything can be grilled; just give it a go and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, there’s always ketchup.
Helen Graves is a freelance recipe developer, food and travel writer and editor based in London. She founded and edits the magazine Pit, an independent magazine that covers live-fire cooking and runs the blog Food Stories. Helen was paid for this newsletter.
The illustration was done by Holly Catford, who is an illustrator and art-designer and the co-founder of Pit. Holly was also paid for her work.