Tea Smoking: Brewing Up Unique Smoke Flavors

If you’re into smoking foods, you’re probably familiar with the wide varieties of woods that are used to infuse unique flavors into various meats, poultry, and seafood. But when you take a look around the world at what materials are used for smoking food, you’ll find all manner of combustibles being called into service, ranging from grape vines to peat to compressed and dehydrated dung.

The Chinese, however, originated a smoking technique that takes common elements of their native cuisine and turns them into ethereal dishes of unique aromas and flavors.

Smoking food was originally used as a way to preserve food stuffs before refrigeration was invented. Today, it is more about the flavor than the need for preservation.

Tea smoke is pungent and thick, so a little goes a long way. It is likely that the food being smoked will have to be finished by some other cooking method, such as roasting, grilling or braising.

In Sichuan, China, tea-smoked duck is one of the most celebrated dishes of this type. Some real standout choices for tea-smoking are such seafood as salmon, shrimp, scallops, or sea bass. Really, just about any seafood that has a buttery texture and considerable fat content are excellent choices because the fat absorbs so much of the smoky flavor.

Given the wide range of tea flavors, tea smoking is a highly versatile method of infusing exotic flavors. Such beef cuts as tenderloin, short ribs and tri-tip stand up well to some of teas with darker flavors, including Earl Grey and English Breakfast. Black tea mixed with orange and spices lend a distinctive Asian nuance to tea-smoked beef. Chicken, goose and other poultry lend themselves very well to tea smoking. When it comes to pork, ribs, chops and tenderloins pair very well with a wide range of teas.

The Basics

To start, make an aluminum foil pouch big enough to hold equal amounts (about 1/3 cup each) of uncooked rice, brown sugar, and loose tea leaves. Fold the pouch up loosely and poke a number of small holes in the top of the pouch only.

A mini aluminum loaf pan also works well—it can be covered with aluminum foil or left open.

Once your fire is ready, lay the pouch directly on the coals leaving the lid off the grill until you see wisps of smoke coming from the pouch. Then, close up the grill and let the tea do its stuff.

For most seafood, you won’t need much more than 15 to 30 minutes. For pork and beef, give it a bit longer. But that’s all it takes.

With light-colored poultry or seafood it’s fairly easy to gauge how much smoke has been absorbed: the darker the color, the smokier the flavor.

See the photos below for Evan Lobel’s method of making Chai Tea Smoked Salmon: The ingredients, getting the salmon on the grill, and the final result.

Choosing the Tea

The tea you choose is really a personal choice determined by experimentation and your taste preferences. But as a starting point there are a few good basic choices.

  • Black tea produces a dense earthy smoke that works with just about everything.
  • Jasmine tea lends floral notes that are perfect for lighter foods like seafood and pork.
  • Genmaicha tea sort of comes right down the middle of those two with a nice balance of musk and light herbal notes.

Aromatics

With the strong unique flavors of different types of tea, you don’t really need to add extra flavors. But adding aromatics open up a whole new world of flavor possibilities.

Try adding a variety of dried spices or fresh herbs to the packet for unique aromas and flavor. Dried orange or tangerine peels, whole star anise, cloves, cinnamon (or as the Chinese use, its related herb, cassia buds) garlic cloves, and peppercorns are all very characteristic additions.

On the Side

For a great dipping sauce or glaze that pairs nicely with the tea-smoked flavor, try the following recipe. Mix together:

  • A tablespoon or so of Asian mustard (or try Tracklements Horseradish Mustard or Löwensenf Classic Hot Mustard, which is very similar to Chinese mustard)
  • 1/2 cup Asian duck sauce
  • A dash of sesame oil
  • A dash or two of Chinkiang (dark Asian) vinegar or rice vinegar
  • Hot chili sauce to taste

Evan Lobel’s Chai Tea Smoked Salmon


The ingredients of Evan’s  Chai Tea Smoked Salmon.

Just after Evan put them on the grill!

And the beautifully delicious finished product!

 

Have you ever tried tea smoking meat, poultry, or seafood? If so, what is your favorite type of tea for smoking and how would you describe the flavor the smoke adds? What types of aromatics do you prefer?

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