Historically, smoking was a method of food preservation closely akin to drying. Nowadays on a Chinese menu it primarily denotes a style of flavoring—a dusky, succulent, complex excitement of tastes that adds a finishing touch to already cooked foods. Rather than a long, elaborate process involving a specially constructed room or chest where temperatures rise high and long enough to cook, flavor, and preserve raw food, this simpler style of stovetop smoking is a short process designed solely to season and to color. In the brief span of 20–30 minutes, and in the uncomplicated small space of a sealed pot, an already steamed fowl or fish is permeated by smoke and turned a deep mahogany brown.
What this means to the home cook is that the sensual pleasures of smoked chicken, smoked duck, and smoked fish are well within the reach of even a klutsy kitchen person. If you can steam food, line a pot, and turn on the heat to start some sugar burning, you needn’t go to Szechwan to savor a smoked duck. All that is required is a plump fresh bird or fish (one that is fat as opposed to very lean will taste best), a fair amount of tin foil, a heavy pot, and an eager appetite. As for a smoky kitchen—given an open window and even a half-hearted breeze—what lingers for a mere hour and is gone thereafter is so exquisite a scent that it should be bottled and advertised in Vogue.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.