Seriously Asian

Asian cookery, with an emphasis on the traditional, underappreciated, or misunderstood elements thereof.

Seriously Asian: Tea Smoking

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Though I never went through a rebellious stage, where I took up vices like drinking and drugs, I have gotten in trouble in the past for smoking. Smoking fish and meat, that is.

The first time I tried smoking a fish in a wok, the fumes from the kitchen crept underneath my front door and attracted the ire of my passing landlord, who wasn't even the least bit assuaged by offerings of smoked cod perfumed with the scent of charred jasmine tea and jasmine rice. Despite my assurances that smoking in a wok is safe, easy, and effective, he forbade me from doing it again in his building.

So the next time I tried, I made sure to stuff rags underneath my door and open every window in the apartment. With minimal smoke wafting from the lidded wok, I sustained the sweet perfume of tea and rice toasting over a flame for 40 minutes or so, during which time the wine-marinated fish took on the heady scents inside. That, combined with the spoonful of sugar I'd added to the wok, produced a deeply burnished piece of smoked fish: flavorful, tender and, smoky with a touch of caramel.

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If you've only smoked food outside with wood chips, you'll be pleased with the efficacy of smoking indoors. The principle of smoldering something fragrant over very low heat is the same; indoors, it's easier to monitor and adjust the heat. While you can certainly smoke indoors with a handful of woodchips, you can also add more delicate items to use as your smoking agent, such as tea, rice, sugar, and even peppercorns. (And, if you have an exhaust fan over your stove, the smell of the smoke will be minimal.)

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The initial first few minutes of smoking in a wok are heavenly, perhaps 30 percent of the reason why I smoke in the first place. The smell of tea leaves toasting over fire is hauntingly memorable; my choice of tea is usually jasmine for its floral perfume, though a stronger black tea will impart an even smokier flavor into the meat or fish.

So, How Do You Smoke the Meat?

To smoke, simply toast the tea leaves and rice over medium to high heat in a sealed wok and wait for a few wisps of smoke to escape from the lid. After that, wait a few minutes for the smoke in the wok to build; then turn off the heat and allow the items inside to absorb the smoke. Waiting too long risks imparting a tinge of bitterness to the food, but you have a forgivable window of time during the last stage of this process.

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Once you've gotten the hang of moderating heat and time, you can play with different kinds of meat and fish. Naturally tender meats, such as chicken thighs, pork belly, and a range of fatty and non fatty fish (salmon, cod, striped bass, and so forth) work well. Depending on what you're smoking, you may need to precook your protein (fish and most meats will require a short steaming time, whereas pork belly cured for bacon can go directly in the wok).

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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