Ever since humans have eaten meat, they have sought ways to preserve it and ensure a supply throughout leaner times. There have been countless methods of preservation employed throughout millennia, including salting, drying, chemical methods and storage in naturally cool places like caves. With the advent of cool storage, first the cheap production of ice then domestic refrigeration in the 20th Century, these fascinating food handling methods have begun to dwindle and decline into obscurity.
The antiquarian food preservation methods that remain today are not employed to prolong the life of food, but to enhance flavour. Two notable styles of preservation that remain today are salting, as you would find in salted meats such as corned beef and proscuitto (Parma ham) and salted fish, such as baccalo and gravlax. The other method is smoking.
Smoke for food preservation is normally provided by wood chips or sawdust. Different woods are chosen for the subtle flavor differences that they impart, such as apple wood and cherry wood. The smoker then has a second choice, cold smoking or hot smoking.
Cold smoking involves burning the smoking wood in one room and transferring the smoke to a second room, which remains cool and houses the food to be smoked. Depending on the desired result, this can take up to several days. The end product will be raw, but imbued with a heady smoke flavour. Smoked salmon is the most renowned product of this method.
Hot smoking, of which tea smoking is one style, requires the smoldering wood and food to be placed in one chamber. A much quicker method as heat is cooking the food at the same time as smoke is flavouring it. This takes minutes rather than days. It also has the added advantage of being practicably achievable at home.
Tea smoking is a wonderful Chinese variation on the smoking theme. Instead of wood; tea leaves, rice and sugar are burned to instill a deep, mysterious flavour to foods. Poultry is the main ingredient used by the Chinese, but fish works equally as well, especially the salmonid family, such as salmon and trout, I have even smoked tomatoes, they are delicious.
Here is a recipe for tea smoking mixture and how to smoke food at home.
Mix the smoking ingredients together and store in an airtight jar. The mix lasts for ages.
Now, how to smoke. You will need a heavy fry pan (skillet) or saute pan and a steamer that fits snugly on top. Make a small square of tin foil and turn up all four sides about an inch. Fill with about 1 cup of tea smoking mix, place in the dry fry pan and set over high heat. After a minute or two the mix will begin to smoke. Set the food you want to smoke on a plate and place into the steamer. Cover tightly. When the tea is really starting to smoke up place your steamer on top, turn down the heat and let it go. The longer you smoke, the more flavour you get. A small fillet of salmon takes about 10 minutes.
Other ingredients to try are chicken, quail, beef, tuna, oysters, mussels, mushrooms or tofu. Bear in mind that the longest you will get smoke from this method is about 25 minutes, so larger ingredients, such as chicken and beef cuts will require partial pre-cooking. For a 1.5 kg (2 ½ lb) chicken, steam or poach for 20 minutes, then smoke for another 20 minutes.
Oh, by the way, make sure you open your kitchen window first!