Tonight I experimented with a Chinese cooking technique: tea smoking, that you can do indoors in your kitchen… if you want to stink up your house; ha ha, only kidding; my housemate arrived mid-smoke and said it smelled pretty good. :)
I learned about tea smoking on Chef Ming Tsai’s program, Simply Ming, perhaps a month or two ago.
First, tea smoking typically calls for a covered pan with a lid, and a screen or wire grill that can fit inside to suspend the fish or meat above the smoking materials. I decided to use an old pan that I no longer use, and should have discarded because the non-stick surface is flaking off. I figured it was perfect for this application since the food doesn’t come in contact with the pan’s surface and it has a tight fitting lid.
I lined the pan with two layers of aluminum foil, and placed the smoking materials in it: some uncooked Calrose rice, Darjeeling tea, brown sugar, and some tarragon leaves. (The tarragon was once fresh, but that was a long time ago, so I thought cremating it was reasonable.) I used Darjeeling, an Indian rather than Chinese tea, simply because that was the only leaf tea I had on hand. I don’t see why you couldn’t use any tea, even ground tea leaves, though.
The fish I chose was an unusual kind of catfish, well, unusual to most Americans: it’s sold here by the name “Swai,” and is a typically farm-raised in the Mekong Delta region. This fish is just a bit lighter and more flaky (less meaty texture) than U.S. catfish. While technically a catfish, it isn’t allowed to be sold by that name here because it competes with the U.S. farm-raised catfish. If you’d like to know more about this increasingly popular and sometimes controversial fish, you can read more in my recipe for Moo Shu Catfish.
I prepared the thawed fish filet (3-4 oz., about 1/2″ at its thickest point) by rubbing it with some five spice powder and brown sugar and placing atop napa cabbage leaves in a steamer to be placed in the smoking pan, with another layer of aluminum foil between the steamer and the smoking materials so that they don’t adhere to the steamer as they burn. (I didn’t have a screen or wire rack, so I improvised by temporarily removing the plastic handles from my rice cooker’s steamer basket.)
Next, I set the burner to a medium-high heat, and when it began to smoke a bit, covered the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduced to medium heat, and cooked for 15 minutes; luckily the lid was just high enough to accommodate the steamer basket.
After those 15 minutes, I removed the pan from the heat and allowed it to sit another 15 minutes, then uncovered it.
I served the filet on lightly salted, peeled cucumber slices (overlapped, otherwise they can’t be picked up with chopsticks!) and topped it with a simple tzatziki-like sauce of greek yogurt, minced garlic, black pepper, salt, and a touch of honey. While I used fresh garlic here, I’d suggest using roasted garlic as the sauce’s garlic flavor was a bit harsh for this mild fish.
So, the verdict? The fish was moist and tender with a significant smoky flavor, but quite unlike that of wood-smoked fish. It’s a tasty option. I do think, however, I would have experienced the smoky flavor more genuinely had I not been essentially standing in or over the smoke for a half hour or more just prior to dinner. :)
I’ll experiment with different rices and teas, and perhaps tea-smoke a brined Cornish game hen before baking it.
Lastly, I see why some tea smoking demonstrations suggest covering everything with foil (including the lid). The smoke mixes with the moisture and can make for a couple extra minutes of scrubbing during clean-up. It’s super easy to just discard the foil instead.
Here are the recipes I consulted: