Tea and Spice Smoked Fish

燻魚

This is a very different smoked fish from the sort that we are used to eating in the West. The taste and aroma is very light and herby—with touches of cinnamon, orange or tangerine peel, and Szechwan peppercorns—and the smoking process is a matter of only minutes enacted on a stovetop. Unlike the lengthy smoking-preserving process that seasons whitefish and salmon and involves special woods, smokehouses, or ovens, this is a style of smoking that imparts flavor, color, and fragrance to an already-cooked fish. It is simple enough for a beginning cook and requires nothing more than a suitable “old” pot, a few sheets of tin foil, and a common collection of tea leaves and spices.

  • What this dish does require is an extremely fresh fish, with a clean-tasting, delicate flesh that is somewhat fatty as opposed to very lean, though you do not want a characteristically oily fish. I have had extraordinary results with Oregon black cod (worth a trip to Oregon or a call to a fish market like Newman’s in Eugene that will fly you one), and very tasty results with sea bass. Salmon and pomfret (the latter being the common fish for smoking in Taiwan) are also delicious done this way. Be experimental and, when a whole fish of a suitable size and character is not available, use a cross-section of a larger fish that meets the standards for freshness and flavor. Leave the skins and bones intact but if the cross-section is more than 2 inches thick, cut it in half lengthwise through the backbone, score only the skin side, and steam and smoke it skin side up.
  • You may begin preparations 3 hours or 3 days in advance of serving, and serve the fish hot, tepid, or at room temperature.

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Ingredients

  • 1 extremely fresh, bright-eyed fish, with a firm, delicate-tasting flesh that is not overly lean, 1½–2 pounds before gutting, thoroughly scaled and gutted, head and tail left on

To marinate the fish

  • tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 4 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce (read the cautionary note regarding brands)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 4 quarter-size slices fresh ginger

To smoke the fish

  • cup dry black tea leaves
  • cup raw rice
  • cup packed brown sugar, light or dark
  • 1 teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns, crushed
  • 3 quarter-size pieces Chinese cassia bark, broken into small bits, or a 2-inch long cinnamon stick, broken into small bits
  • 2 finger lengths home-dried orange or tangerine peel, torn into small pieces
  • 1–1½ teaspoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

Method

Preparations

If you are beginning with a whole fish, snip off all the fins but the tail fin with sturdy scissors, then clean the fish meticulously inside and out as directed. Be sure that you remove all the lingering scales and clean the cavity clear down to the backbone. Flush with cold water, pat dry inside and out, then score the fish from collar to tail on both sides.

If you are using the cross-section of a larger fish, remove any scales left on it with a fish scaler or by running your fingers against the grain of the scales and pulling them loose. Clean the backbone and the cavity of any bloody bits or pieces of clinging membrane. Rinse with cold water and pat dry, inside and out. With a sharp cleaver or chef’s knife, divide the cross-section lengthwise into 2 pieces along the backbone, then score each skin side at 1-inch intervals along the length of each piece, cutting ¾ of the way to the bone.

Put the whole fish in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow bowl that will hold it snugly and allow it to lie flat. Put the two cross-section pieces of fish in the same type of vessel, each with the skin side facing up.

Marinating the fish

Combine the wine, soy, sugar, and salt, stirring to blend the sugar. Hit the scallion and ginger with the blunt handle end or broad side of a cleaver or heavy knife to spread the fibers and bring the juices to the surface, then mix them with the liquids. Pour the marinade evenly over the fish, arraying half of the scallion and ginger on top.

Spoon the liquids evenly over the top of the fish and into the score marks, using your fingers to spread the score marks to allow the seasonings to penetrate. If you are using a whole fish, spoon the marinade into the belly cavity as well. Repeat at 15-minute intervals for 1–2 hours, while the fish sits uncovered and at room temperature. If you are using a whole fish, turn it over midway through marinating. (Also, if you are working with a whole fish, do not be surprised if the marinade turns the eyes a striking yellow-green.)

If it is not convenient to proceed to steam the fish directly, you may refrigerate it overnight in the marinade, sealed airtight. Bring to room temperature before steaming.

Steaming the fish

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Drain the fish and discard the liquids and the ginger and scallion. Oil a rack (preferably one on which you can also smoke the fish to avoid having to transfer it) which will support the fish and fit in your steamer. Set the fish on the oiled rack, then prop the rack on top of a smaller pie plate or shallow bowl, so the fish will drain and not steam in its own juices.

Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat, center the bowl with the rack and the fish on top of it on the steaming tier, then cover the steamer. Steam the fish for about 6–8 minutes, depending on its thickness, until the base of the score mark in the thickest part of the fish is just white or still a very faint shade of pink. Remove the fish promptly from the steamer and transfer it on its rack to a baking sheet to cool, where it will continue to cook a bit from its own heat.

At this point, you may proceed to smoke the fish directly or, if it is more convenient, you may let it cool completely and then refrigerate it overnight, sealed airtight. Bring the refrigerated fish to room temperature before smoking.

Smoking the fish

Line the pot and lid for smoking. If you are smoking the fish on a rack different from the one used for steaming, oil it liberally and place the fish on top.

Combine the smoking ingredients, then spread them evenly in the bottom of the pot. Put the rack with the fish on it into the pot about 1 inch above the smoking mixture, propping the rack above the smoking mixture if necessary with 2 empty tin cans. If the head or tail of the fish is touching the foil, then put a small piece of oiled parchment paper between them at the point where they touch so the fish will not adhere to the foil when smoked.

Set the uncovered pot over high heat until the sugar begins to bubble and send up thick plumes of smoke in several places, anywhere from 4–10 minutes depending on the vigor of the stove and the thickness of the pot. Only at that point, cover the pot securely and crimp the foil loosely shut. Smoke the fish for 10 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the fish rest in the covered pot on top of the burner for 5 minutes. During this “resting” time, the smoking will continue owing to the combustion of the smoking ingredients, the heat of the pot, and the residual heat of the burner.

At the end of the resting time, remove the pot from the burner (ideally, near an exhaust fan, an open window, or outside on the back porch). Uncrimp the foil, then slowly lift the lid from the pot angling it away from you. If the heat was properly intense, then the smoke will have turned the fish a deep golden brown. If the color seems light, then taste a bit of the fish. If the flavor is pale as well, then sprinkle an additional 3–4 tablespoons white or brown sugar around the edge of the burnt smoking ingredients, return the uncovered pot to high heat, and repeat the process for half of the original time, again waiting for the smoking to begin in earnest before covering the pot.

When the fish is as golden and smoky-tasting as you like, remove the rack from the smoker. Immediately seal the burnt smoking ingredients in the foil used to line the pot and the lid and dispose of them. Smooth your palms with the sesame oil, and gloss the fish evenly on both sides, sliding it carefully from the rack onto a serving platter of contrasting color (heated, if you are serving the fish immediately).

Smoked fish is excellent fresh from the smoker, tepid, or at room temperature. Garnish it prettily with sprigs of fresh coriander or clusters of marinated radish fans before serving, and use the score marks to help you lift the fish from the bones. If you are serving a whole fish, do not forget to eat the fish cheeks that lie beneath the eyes; they are particularly sweet and meaty.

Leftovers keep nicely 3–4 days, sealed airtight and refrigerated. If you wish to reheat them, seal airtight in tin foil, then place in a preheated 450° oven for about 10 minutes until hot. The buildup of steam during reheating, if the foil package is sealed properly in a butcher’s fold, will moisten the fish appealingly. Leftovers are also excellent at room temperature, especially on a piece of good bread spread with Coriandered Mustard Sauce.