Cooking outside of the hot box: why we still cook outdoors

Plasa Bieu, a popular place for tourists and locals alike to eat krioyo (local) food on Curaçao, is quiet on a Wednesday morning. One of the cooks, Zus di Plasa, is stirring vegetables in a big cast-iron pot on a charcoal burning stove. For those of us living on Soylent, cooking lunch on the traditional stove called the konfó like our ancestors did, may seem ludicrous. However, many krioyo cooks prefer it. They don’t choose this traditional cooking method out of necessity, but for its benefits: enhanced flavours, practicality and versatility.

“The main benefit of cooking on a konfó is the enhanced flavours,” says Bonaire native Anchelo Sintjago. The Sintjago family often forgoes their modern kitchen for outdoor cooking, claiming that the intense heat of the open flame helps to caramelise the food and speeds up the cooking process. The smoke gives the dish a distinct flavour. “You can play with the flavours by choosing the right type of fuel. Charcoal will result in a different dish compared to wood from the wayaca tree. You can’t recreate the taste on a gas stove,” he says.

Another benefit is the konfó’s practicality. “You can set up a konfó anywhere. Whether you want to cook in your backyard or in the kunuku, all you need are a few boulders or an old wheel and a cast-iron pot. As long as you have a sturdy base for your pot and there is enough air circulating to keep the fire alive, you’re ok,” he says. For those preferring a sturdier option Edmond Hooi, also known as Bubu Yerba Yerba, is the go-to guy for hand-made stoves. “Depending on the client’s wishes I use an old wheel or an empty propane tank,” says Hooi. “The propane tank is made from stainless steel, which makes it more durable compared to the iron wheel. It also holds more fuel, because of its size and shape,” he says.

With prices starting at 50 guilders a piece, the konfó fits most budgets and offers versatility of cooking techniques as well. The same konfó can offer a quick flame for boiling, a low flame for stewing and glowing embers for frying or broiling. If you happen to have a grill rack with you, you can turn the stove into a barbeque as well for grilling. The konfó is suitable for small groups as well as large groups: you just need to adjust the pot. “If you are cooking for a big group of people the 17 inch wheel konfó is more suitable than the 13 inch. It holds more fuel and allows for bigger pots,” Sintjago says.

According to the National Archaeological – Anthropological Memory Management (NAAM), an organisation for the cultural resource management on the island, cooking was traditionally done outdoors as it was a messy process thanks to animal butchering at home and it posed a fire hazard. Although modern stove tops do not pose a great fire hazard, many traditional dishes that require fresh meat, deep frying or hours of stewing, are messy to make and these benefits still apply today.

However, cooking outdoors on an open flame isn’t all benefits, no drawbacks. Charcoal takes time to get lit and get ready for cooking. Cooking on wood embers takes much longer. Cleaning up isn’t a breeze either as you need to wait for the fire to die out and the embers to cool. The entire endeavour can also prove a bit messy and accidentally spilled or discarded food can attract rodents. In addition, cooking over an open flame can produce a significant amount of smoke, which can prove harmful and in some cases deadly, if the area is not well ventilated. According to the World Health Organization over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to cooking with solid fuels, more than 50% of premature deaths among children under five are due to pneumonia caused by soot inhalation and 3.8 million premature deaths annually from non-communicable diseases are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Whether you feel the benefits of outdoor cooking on a konfó outweigh the drawbacks or not, take the advice from Zus di Plasa. It doesn’t matter which cooking method or utensils you use. “If you ask me, food should be cooked with love.”