Sophisticated designs are transforming the outdoor cooking experience, writes Chris Oliver
This summer, thousands of people will be breaking out the barbecue to take part in a social ritual that goes back to the origins of cooking. Plates of meats lovingly cooked for hours, along with cobs of corn and jacket potatoes wrapped in tin foil, will follow a familiar march on to the grill for a sizzle cook-up that reflects the essence of get-togethers with good friends.
In recent times, the art of barbecuing has been the domain largely of Western cultures, but the ritual is fast gaining popularity in Asia with newcomers to outdoor cooking.
Rhonda Gretton, long-term Hong Kong resident and owner of Love that Lifestyle, says that in recent years she has noticed a marked rise in interest among local Chinese. The change, she says, is driven in part by more flexible social conventions, which say it is now okay to entertain at home instead of heading out for weekend meals at expensive restaurants.
'More people are spending more time at home,' Ms Gretton says. 'A lot of designer magazines are looking more at that and promoting the theme.
'We are teaching a new concept here. The type of barbecues that we are selling are not just the type you throw a sausage and steak on,' Ms Gretton says. 'It's a kitchen on wheels - you can cook a meal, you can do roasts, you can do everything you can do in a conventional kitchen.'
Ms Gretton's shop deals solely in a line of Australian-made barbecue gas-powered cookers under the brand names Barbeques Galore and BeefEater. They range in price from HK$4,000 to HK$34,000.
These cookers have little in common with the charcoal burners we are used to seeing at beaches and public parks. With a wide selection of accessories available, they can easily be converted using special attachments to support new uses.
One example are wok attachments. These fitted plates come with high-temperature burners to enable outdoor chefs to stir up Chinese dishes.
If you do not like meat charred over an open flame, there are hot plates that cover half the grill.
Ms Gretton says most of her Hong Kong customers are expats and Chinese who have studied or worked abroad. But a growing segment of local Chinese seem to be getting into the act, largely because increasing prosperity means people on an average income now have more physical living space to operate an outdoor cooker.
Many high-rise and condominium projects provide dedicated barbecue areas, while residents in the New Territories are taking advantage of the village houses to install barbecues in their garden areas or on rooftops.
In addition to supplying equipment, Ms Gretton supplies a wide range of education materials, including videos, cookbooks, recipe guides and an after-sales service. 'We are really trying to educate people,' she says.
Sally Leung, retail manager of the Banyan Tree in Central, says there is no wrong season for barbecuing in Hong Kong, although the high season is between late summer and early autumn, when cooling temperatures make outdoor cooking more comfortable. One of the secrets driving the recent popularity of barbecuing is the easy use of gas cooking.
'A lot of people are looking for gas barbecues rather than charcoal because they find it more convenient,' Ms Leung says. 'Some of our customers are still using charcoal barbecues, but increasingly, those with private terraces or private gardens are switching to gas.'
Banyan Tree specialises in Weber, a brand of United States-made barbecues retailing for between HK$900 and HK$4,400 for charcoal cookers, and HK$8,600 and HK$15,000 for gas cookers.
Ms Leung says the biggest obstacle to growth is the small space of most Hong Kong flats. Despite this, the company is gearing up to serve a growing interest from mid-market buyers looking for affordable yet quality equipment.
'We are getting a lot of enquiries from customers, because we are the only Asian distributor of the Weber brand,' Ms Leung says. 'According to our customer profile, more are seeking to purchase a wide range of accessories to accommodate house and garden parties.'