The new BBQ

The great Australian barbie is no longer a slash and burn affair boasting tinnies and cremated meat. These days it's a sophisticated and glamorous outdoor dinner party. Terry Durack tucks in
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Indy Lifestyle Online

White men can't jump, black men have rhythm, and Australian men are born to barbecue. Somewhere deep inside us, there is a primitive, restless stirring; a yearning that compels us to seek out somewhere warm and glowing and throw something raw and bloodied onto it.

White men can't jump, black men have rhythm, and Australian men are born to barbecue. Somewhere deep inside us, there is a primitive, restless stirring; a yearning that compels us to seek out somewhere warm and glowing and throw something raw and bloodied onto it.

I've cooked on kettle barbecues and hibachis, on electric and gas. I've cooked on designer jobs as big as mortuaries, on desert campfires, on public coin-in-the-slot barbecues in the park, and on a bit of chicken wire stretched between two bricks. I have learned the art, craft and zen of barbecuing while successfully avoiding ever having to wear one of those silly aprons emblazoned with female breasts.

So why are Australians drawn to the barbecue just as surely as a fish is to water and my wife is to Campari? Because we can eat with our fingers, and sit in the sun, and breathe in smoky, eucalyptus-laden air. Because we don't have to worry about sticking to mealtimes, using placemats, or washing up mountains of pots and pans.

Mind you, Australian barbecues aren't what they used to be. No longer are they slash-and-burn affairs held in the backyard under the clothes line, with the women standing at one end of the yard talking about babies, and the men standing at the other talking about cars and football, drinking cold tinnies and eating cremated lamb chops and soot-black snags.

Instead, the sausages are more likely to be merguez served on mounds of couscous; the lamb chops are painted with Chinese hoisin sauce or marinated in tandoori paste; and the tinny is often a well-chilled Claire Riesling or Yarra Valley Pinot Noir. Blimey, we even use glasses.

The bread has changed, too. Instead of putting out a white sandwich loaf, the slices delicately turning up like Turkish slippers in the heat of the sun, we're scorching Turkish bread and Greek pita over the coals, and piling tomatoes onto grilled sour dough bruschetta.

These days, it is just as likely to be fish as meat sizzling away, from skewered king prawns with sweet chilli sauce and octopus marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice; to a whole snapper stuffed with herbs and wrapped in foil.

Where once, vegetables meant teak salad bowls of soggy coleslaw and potato salad, today they are the main event. Whole cobs of corn, asparagus spears, red peppers, aubergines and courgettes all grill up a treat, and skewers of cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts and cubed polenta are the new kebabs.

Respected cooking schools such as the Sydney Seafood School at the Pyrmont fish market now give classes in the art of the new barbecue. One recent class were taught to cook prawns with herb marinade, Thai squid salad, char-grilled vegetable salad with red wine vinegar dressing, blue mussels with herb and garlic butter, parmesan-crusted grilled garfish, and seared swordfish with wasabi butter.

Socially, the barbecue is no longer a piss-up but a smart/casual social occasion. People BYO beautiful wines, children run free, men and women mingle. In Sydney, particularly, the barbecue is a glamorous dinner party that just happens to be cooked and eaten outdoors. My friend Barry hacks steaks off a great slab of tuna straight from the Sydney fish market, grills them on his four-wheel-drive SUV barbecue, and serves them at a poolside table with enormous salad bowls of ripe cherry tomatoes and shaved fennel. You couldn't dine better in Paris.

The Modern Australian barbie has changed so much, that sometimes even the girls do the cooking. We love our Barbie Dolls, but they make us nervous. What are we meant to do in the meantime - bake a cake? Retaliation, with typically masculine strategy, has been to make barbecuing more complicated, the barbecue itself more technical, and the proposed meal more of a banquet than a grill. My mates have done everything from a Greek seafood feast to a Singaporean satay club.

In case you are neither Australian nor male, it may be worth reiterating some basic rules. First: wait. Be patient, until the flames have died down, and the coals are red hot. Next, brush everything that goes onto the grill with olive oil. Always buy the best possible produce you can afford, and avoid anything in the butcher's shop labelled: "perfect for the barbecue", it's not as good as the stuff in the rest of the shop. Resist the urge to prod. Leave the food alone, cooking it for 80 per cent of the time on the first side and turning only once. Salt and pepper the food as it comes off the grill, and not before. Leave meat and fish to rest for a minute or two before serving.

And finally, the barbie's not over until the barbecue itself is scoured, wiped clean, and covered with a film of oil ready for next time.

My finest moment of learning came at my mother-in-law's 70th birthday, which, naturally enough, was an idyllic riverside barbecue in the middle of a winery. One of her oldest friends observed my cooking style then came over and quietly set me straight, in a secret-handshake, Masonic-lodge, man-to-man kind of way.

"Take the curved sausages and place them on their backs on the grill with the ends pointing up," he said. I did as he suggested, and bugger me if they didn't all straighten out, as if by magic. What a rite of passage, what an initiation into the male tribe - and what sheer, awesome power there is in being a man who can barbecue.