Smoked foods are a regular, and in some provinces an everyday, feature of the Chinese diet. Tea-smoked chickens are standard fare in Peking, camphor-smoked ducks a proud specialty of Szechwan, and no Hunanese with an ounce of regional pride will fail to recount (at length!) the treasury of densely smoked foods for which Hunan is famed—the hams, spareribs, liver, eggs, duck tongues, duck webs, soybeans, and endless variety of major and minor nibbles that have been transformed in the crucible of many a family’s smoking room. Smoked foods in China are traditionally listed in the category of “foods to make the wine go down,” so well do they serve to spark the appetite and tease the tongue.

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.

The smoking agents may vary but are commonplace: tea leaves, sugar, rice, fragrant wood, or wood by-products. The method itself is as simple as turning on a burner. In fact, there is nothing at all formidable about smoking foods. It is only the flavor, that incredible taste mingled with aroma, that is ineffable and wonderfully complex.

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.

    In this section

    ,