Fire in the belly: The grill is my favourite kitchen equipment right now because anything that you cook on it, gets that beautiful umami flavour. Food isn’t just meant to be sweet or spicy: umami is an essential, but underestimated aspect of good food. In fact, think about all the dishes that we enjoy, whether it’s a good chicken tikka or a steak. How are they cooked? They get that slightly smoky, savoury taste from being cooked on a grill. It all comes down to what is known as the Maillard Reaction, which is basically a chemical reaction that caramelises and browns food. The Maillard Reaction is the reason why we enjoy a good kebab or a golden-brown grilled chicken or fish.
A Good Burn: There have been so many moments in my life, when I’ve realised how much we underestimate the power of a good grill — and how we use it — to impart the right flavour to our food. Valencia, in Spain, is the birthplace of paella, and is also famous for its oranges. I’d had paella before, of course, but this one time, it tasted so much better and I realised it was because when they cooked the paella, the wood they used to fire the grill was from their orange trees. The aroma from the wood goes into the food and it completely transforms its flavours. My experience with grills taught me how important the right fuel is to impart the right flavour to food. You can’t make a fish kebab by using the same charcoal that you use to make tandoori rotis, and expect a completely different flavour. This aspect of cooking is, I believe, very under-researched.
Flavour complex: I’ve used a grill to make all sorts of food, whether it’s the entree or a main course, or even the dessert. Last year, for Christmas brunch, in fact, I had cooked desserts with grilled apples, pineapples, and other fruits. It did really well. When it comes to dessert, the trick is to make sure that what you’re making isn’t just sweet, but is nicely balanced with acidity or bitterness or saltiness. For example, if you grill a marshmallow, the complexity of the flavour that comes with the browning is so much more enjoyable than just the plain sweetness of an untoasted marshmallow.
Dhruv Oberoi is the Head Chef, Olive, Qutub, New Delhi. As told to Pooja Pillai