Smoke on the water

August 15, 2010

Tea smoked salmon salad with crisp pancetta & horseradish cream

I was recently reminded about the earthy beauty of tea-smoked fish by that television show. You can see the MasterChef video here – well worth watching to see the technique working easily. Thank God MasterChef is over, is all I can say, because now I have my life back.  I feel as though I was in a cult for a while there (much like my favourite Twitter MC commentator, Ben Pobjie – read about his amusing MC addiction here).

Years ago I used to make a rather complicated but luscious Neil Perry tea smoked ocean trout with spring onion cake from the Rockpool book, and had forgotten all about it until watching the telly reminded me that the complicated aspects of that recipe were the sauce and other  bits, but that the smoking itself was really quite simple.

So, during a couple of beachside weekends with friends last fortnight (lucky us, no?) I decided to give tea smoking another go, minus the difficult stuff. Tea-smoking can be a tiny bit time-consuming, but the rich, complex flavour is well worth it. The first time we did the smoking using a wok and a barbecue; the second time, we borrowed the Empress‘s proper smoking box.  The latter was much quicker but because the smokiness was more intense we finished cooking the fillets with a few minutes in a moderate oven to prevent it tasting more like an ashtray than salmon. The first – if you do it right – is easy and doesn’t require special gear.

The smoking mixture

The MasterChef chaps used hickory chips combined with the smoking mixture, and so did I – but my original version of Neil Perry’s one only used the tea, rice and sugar, and except for the fact we now have a sizable bag of the chips (available from barbecue shops) I wouldn’t bother with the woody stuff again.

Most recipes I’ve seen for smoking are the same – equal parts (say, a cup of each) jasmine rice, jasmine tea and brown sugar.  You can see the mix with the chips pictured here – you just toss them all together and mix. The first time, using the wok, I thought it would be neat to use an alumnium tray to hold the mixture, but this turned out to be a tres stupid idea, because it took forever for the mix to get hot enough. Next time, I would do as everyone advises, and simply put the mix in some foil directly on the base of the wok. Simple stuff – you need maximum contact between the mix and the heat. Duh.


Next, get the fish on a wire rack. The video advises putting the fish on baking paper first, which we did the first time, but didn’t bother the second time. Again, I think best is maximum circulation of the smoke and our quantity of fish meant the paper worked as another barrier between the heat & smoke and the fish. So on our second attempt I simply oiled the rack to ensure non-sticking, which worked fine.

The advantage of the wok method is that you can fit lots of fish in there at once. Then you put the wok on the barbecue, and put a lid on to ensure the smoke stays inside. Problem number three for our first attempt was that I have no wok lid, so used a metal bowl instead. I think if I’d had the mix directly on the foil & base of wok instead of the tray this wouldn’t have been a big issue, but it would be better to have a tighter fit between the lid and the wok so the smoke stays within the space as much as possible. As it was, we improvised a little tin-foil pashmina to wrap around the whole thing where ‘lid’ met wok, which did help a great deal to keep the smoke inside.

Which brings us to the great advantage of the smoker box – the seal, made by a sliding lid,  is very tight and the tray is very close to the mix itself.  Slight drawback for us, in cooking for ten, was that we had to do two batches. But then again, that allowed a couple of different levels of smokiness which allowed people to choose which flavour they liked best from the platter.

In retrospect I think you are supposed to get the thing smoking before putting the fish in, but both times we started with the fish in place, which seemed fine. The fish was beautifully moist both times, so I don’t think there’s much danger of overcooking.

The heat source on the smoking box is a sweet little pot of methlated spirits which sits beneath and outside the box and puts out a surprisingly powerful flame. With the wok, we just used the barbecue. You could easily use your stovetop as they do in the video, but the smoky smell might be difficult to get out of any nearby soft furnishings so I’d advise doing this outside if you can.


Here is the smoked fish after about eight minutes in the smoking box – highly smoked on the outside, but a couple of pieces were quite raw beneath the exterior. Another five minutes or so in the oven fixed that, but several pieces were just cooked through enough to leave as they were.

With the wok smoking (when it finally got going, about half an hour after starting – but as discussed, this delay should be prevented by foil-cup-direct-to-wok-surface method), the smoking was subtler but the cooking more even. You should see white droplets reaching the exterior as it begins to cook within.


So, once your salmon – or trout, or ocean trout or I imagine even chicken or whatever else you fancy! – is ready, all you need to make this salad is some good springy green leaves, some crisped bacon, pancetta or proscuitto, and a creamy dressing we made this time with creme fraiche, fresh horseradish and finely chopped dill, salt & pepper. A mix of good Greek-style yoghurt, dill and horseradish cream would do just as well. I dressed the leaves first in my standard three-parts-oil-one-part-balsamic vinegar dressing, then over that arranged the chunks of salmon, then topped with the bacon and a few dollops of the creamy dressing (keep the rest in a jug on the side – believe me, it’ll go).

All that remained was to pour a glass of bubbles, sling the platter into the centre of the table and then admire the ocean view before hogging into this for lunch.

I am now in love with the whole idea of hot-smoked fish, and am ready to play around with the flavours, with different fish, different teas and so on. Have any of you ever done this? Tempted to give it a try? I can seriously recommend the flavour – it’s so delicately musky – but also the flesh stays so satiny and moist, the texture is just as good a reason to do it. If you do give it a try, please come back and tell me how you go!


  1. Hi, I have been following your blog for a few months now and really enjoy reading your posts. I have been tempted to try smoking trout with tea and a wok because of Masterchef. Thanks for sharing your tips, I can’t wait to get to it!

  2. Hey, thanks Mireille, I love hearing from new visitors here alongside the dear faithfuls. I will be very keen to hear how you go with this; and I bet that episode of the show had the whole of Australia aromatic with smoking salmon. I think the more often you do it the easier it is, and smaller quantities would make the whole thing less time-consuming too. Good luck! Do report back, won’t you.

  3. I can vouch for the tastiness of the salmon you smoked as I was there, and probably chief culprit when it came to vacuuming up the rest of the dill and horseradish sauce, which would also go well on some small boiled potatoes. I have some black Haiwaiian smoked salt of all things, and think that could add nice crunch and texture to non smoked salmon, just the ordinary poached kind, also with some kipfler potatoes.
    Other smoked fave is chicken.
    On a somewhat darker, cautionary note: can anyone tell me why smoked foods appear high on list of things that are linked to cancer? What is it about the process? Puzzled.

  4. Nice one on smoking Char, what I would like to add though is the importance of curing the meat prior to smoking. This seems to be the norm, particularly in Europe, and I must add that pre Shanghai, I was always a non curing, tea- smoking sort of guy, however, times have changed. I now find it almost essential to cure the meats first. For example, a whole side of salmon, I will cure for 6-8 hours with 75g each of sugar and salt, a good crack of pepper, dill, lemon zest and a splash of Pernod. Wipe clean, portion, then pretty much smoke how is suggested above. Similar methods could be used for chicken, turkey, whatever. It is particularly helpful for pelagic species of fish such as tailor, where the fresh flesh tends to break apart easily. Baring in mind that curing and smoking techniques were originally used to preserve meats.
    Also, check this out, I have one on order, though I am not endorsing by any means, it does look like fun!

  5. What a delicious looking dish.

    I normal buy smoked fish but it can end costing quite a lot.

    Thanks for this I feel inspired to give it a go

  6. This looks and sounds so delicious, Shuckin;, but I confess to feeling quite intimidated by it all – ‘smoking’ reminds me of ‘pickling’ – another time-intensive thing I’ve always avoided!!! Perhaps I am too impatient for the results…?! Hamish’s point re. curing is not helping – I am quite sure he’s right, but adding another 6 hours to my preparation time – even if I don’t have to DO anything – just turns off my chef switch.

  7. Cook while you sleep doctordi!! If you cure the fish last thing before bed, then you can turn off all of your switches, and wake up fresh for a solid smoking morning!

    • Ah, very sensible! The ‘ole day prior trick – I like it!

    • Well, Hamish, this adds a whole other dimension and while my first instinct was doctordi’s – wha, more work?? – I can see that it’s really rather simple. What is the difference between the two in taste or texture, can you tell us?

      Doctordi, you just need to approach all time-consuming cooking as some kind of zen meditation attempt where you learn to let go of expectation, stay in the moment, you know the story. I’m sure it’s good for the brain levels of cortisol or seretonin or all those other things that I am completely ignorant about…

      Caroline, I don’t know about the cancer element but thanks for bringing it up (!!) . I bet, though, that that is more about commercial smoking / preserving where they use all kinds of chemicals added to make things a particular colour and so on. I bet the Empress knows about this, shall we ask her? Empress, where are you? Do you know?

      Jess and Mireille, I’d love to know how you went if you gave this a try …

      • Have just read an interesting point on smoking in the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (very good book)!
        They talk about “Pellicle”; “Of smoking basics, the only issue that isn’t a matter of common sense is the importance of allowing the food to dry long enough before smoking to form a pellicle, a tacky surface that the smoke will stick to. (This is especially noticeable with salmon, which develops a distinctly tacky feel when dried). If you put damp meat or sausage into a smoker, it wont pick up the smoke as effectively as it would if dried uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. Yes, food will still pick up smoke if you don’t give it a chance to develop a pellicle, but the end results will be superior if you do.”
        Kind of backing up the curing process pre smoking!!

  8. Hello Caro and Charlotte, I don’t know much about the cancer thing except that it’s been recognised for yonks and not just because of other chemicals used in commercial smoking. It’s the actual smoke that’s a problem. Charring’s bad too – toast, sausages, you name it, though with meat that can be off set by marinating first (don’t ask me why). A related problem is the cancer risk with nitrates, almost always used in commercially cured meats. Moderation’s the key I think. Isn’t it always?

    • Oh, moderation, moderation. I would love to be one of those people who does everything moderately. It must be a very peaceful way to live. That is rather displeasing news, Steph, about the smoke but as you say, unless we’re chowing down on a big hunk of black stuff every day, we should be okay. By the time the fat cancer fights with the lazy-person cancer they might both cancel out the smoke cancer…

      • I am pretty sure that pineapple juice has anti-carcinogenic qualities to it. In fact it was used in an add to promote a particular brand of pineapple juice in the Philippines and went along the lines of “…do you like barbecued foods, if so you are at a higher risk of developing cancer from this, so drink pineapple juice to prevent etc, etc…”
        So maybe a glass of pineapple juice whilst smoking should be listed in the recipe! Add some ice, kaffir lime and a good splash of gin and you are away!!

  9. Hello again!
    I did it and it turned out so well. Lots of tips were taken from you so thank you again very much. I didn’t have horseradish and instead made an herbed yogurt sauce as well as a salad to with it. My dressings were citrusy and vinegary so they paired really well with the smoky fish. I wrote more about it here; http://dirtyicecreaminyourlunchbox.blogspot.com/2010/08/holy-smokes.html

    • Fantastic Mireille – your salad looks amazing! So glad you tried it. I am going to have another go soon.

  10. […] went wild with joy at the complex and interesting dishes to be found on the menu at our pal Hamish’s gorgeous M On the Bund restaurant in […]

  11. […] & my forthcoming vegetarian experiment for February – more on that later).  And smoked fish, too, is a thing of […]

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