Takeaway

Holy smoke!

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on April 02, 2021

Flavour capital: There are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that describe the way in which fish must be smoked   -  NISSAR AHMAD

Be it sausages, biryani or ice cream, there isn’t a dish that doesn’t benefit from the infusion of smoke

* As soon as I see the word “smoked” on restaurant menus, I find myself waving for the waiter with a greedy look on my face

* While our taste buds have receptors for sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours, they don’t have specific receptors for smoky ones. This makes the widespread fondness for smoked foods a bit of a puzzle

* In China, tea is sometimes used instead of wood chips, while in Italy hay is used to smoke mozzarella and in France mussels are cooked over pine-needle smoke

****

Difficult though it is, I’m sensible about cake. I’m even balanced about white-cloud meringues, crunchy prawn tempura, sugar-dusted cubes of Turkish delight, crispy light waffles, fiery Malvani fish curry. But there’s one arrow that invariably pierces my everything-in-moderation armour.

Strangely, it’s neither a dish nor an ingredient. Even more strangely, it involves neither sugar, butter nor cream. Instead, it’s an intangible — partly cooking technique, partly aroma and partly ancient memory. It also happens to be one of the big food fads of the moment.

As soon as I see the word “smoked” on restaurant menus, I find myself waving for the waiter with a greedy look on my face. The moment I spot it in grocery stores, I’m loading up my cart at top speed. And if I happen upon an article that promises “Five easy hacks to introduce that smoky flavour into food”, I bookmark it, save it, virtually memorise it.

I like smoke in everything — salmon and biryani; peach jam and ice cream; chocolate cake and marshmallows. For as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a dish out there that doesn’t benefit from an infusion of that subtle flavour: Earthy, sweetish, faintly bitter — that’s as elusive as smoke itself.

Naturally, then, I have:

— A freezer that’s usually stocked with smoked sausages and a whole smoked chicken — invaluable for salads, sandwiches and quiches.

— Fridge shelves that boast smoked mozzarella, smoked almonds and a too-slim packet of way too pricey smoked salmon that, along with cream cheese, makes for sublime sandwiches.

— A kitchen cabinet featuring two jars of smoked paprika, one bottle of chipotle smoked sea salt and a little black tin of Lapsang souchong tea.

— A wish-list that includes smoked brown sugar, smoked pepper, smoked chilli jam. And, of course, a bottle of liquid smoke, that most controversial but tantalising of flavourings, made from the condensed emanations of a wood fire. (The health police won’t approve. But then the health police doesn’t like smoked foods in general.)

If I had a bigger kitchen, this list would have included one of those swish new smokers that look like Artoo-Detoo.

If I had a dog, it would have included smoked chicken dog treats.

And if I was a drinker, it would have included smoked beers and vodkas.

Even without, it’s long enough.

As you can see, over the last decade, smoke has made its way into cherry jams, bacon spreads, chocolate chips and recipe books — a trend that goes against scientific logic. For while our taste buds have receptors for sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours, they don’t have specific receptors for smoky ones. This makes the widespread fondness for smoked foods a bit of a puzzle.

Scientists and food researchers believe that what we respond to is a distinctive smell that transports us back 1.8 million years — to a time when the whiff of smoke brought with it the promise of a meal. “Of the three elements of flavour, it’s smell that rocks our dawn-of-man world,” writes columnist Jim Shahin in The Washington Post. “That’s because the sense is lodged in an ancient part of the brain called the limbic system, which houses emotion and long-term memory. Smells trigger personal memories as well as atavistic, or ancestral ones.”

Theories about the birth of smoking abound. What we do know is that when our ancestors first dabbled with cooking, it was on an open fire. What we can guess is that they hung meat and fish in their caves. As the average cave was not an airy, ventilated space fitted with sleek exhaust fans, the smoke from these fires lingered. Gradually, the smoke performed its magic on the meat, adding subtle flavour, tenderising it and helping to preserve it for a longer period. Over time, this evolved into a cooking technique that gained sophistication.

There are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that describe the way in which fish must be smoked. The Greeks and Romans adored smoked salmon. Small outbuildings called smokehouses or smokeries dotted the Europe of the Middle Ages. Here, sausages and meat were suspended from the roof and cured in the gentle smoke of a slow fire. The process sometimes took an entire fortnight. Different woods imparted distinct flavours and the business of smoking became more and more complex.

In China, tea is sometimes used instead of wood chips, while in Italy hay is used to smoke mozzarella and in France mussels are cooked over pine-needle smoke. Lapsang souchong tea is smoked over pine needles. Awadhi cuisine in India uses the dhungar technique. Meat is placed in a clay bowl to marinate. A hollow is made in the middle and a small metal bowl is placed in it. A live coal is added into this metal bowl and ghee is poured on it. As soon as the ghee starts to smoke, the large clay bowl is covered, allowing the meat to bathe in smoke. After some time, the coal is discarded and the meat is cooked.

This is also the technique that the Bohras use to make hasmo, a unique dish tossed together with leftovers. Dal, rice, some leftover mutton dish, a few spoonfuls of bhaji, a dash of mango pickle are mixed together and “given a dhungar” that somehow manages to bring the disparate flavours together.

As a child I always wondered how boring old dal and rice and yesterday’s mutton gravy invariably metamorphosed into magnificence. Now, of course, I know the secret. Be it vanilla ice cream, a basic fruit jam or simple salt, smoke has a way of creating something that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.

Recipe of sorts

 Is it possible to smoke food without paraphernalia like a smoker, wood chips and coal? It is, so long as you possess a big wok and a fair amount of courage. Here are the steps advocated by Serious Eats, a website and blog for food lovers. Following them, I plan to start my career as a food-smoker by experimenting on peaches and pineapples:

 Cover your wok with heavy-duty foil that hangs over the edges by at least 5-6 inches. The foil should be pressed into the base of the wok.

 Insert a rack into the wok. It should be at least three inches above the floor of the wok. A regular cooling rack works fine.

 Place your smoking ingredients in the base of the wok. (Serious Eats used a mix of sugar, white rice, green tea, star anise and coriander seeds to smoke chicken wings. You can experiment.)

 Set the burner to medium-high and let the wok heat up until the ingredients inside start releasing smoke, about 5 minutes. The sugar will burn first, then the other ingredients will start smoking.

 Place the fish/meat/fruit that you want to smoke on the rack.

 Place a second large piece of heavy-duty aluminium foil over the top of the food. Lift the edges of the bottom sheet up and crimp the two pieces of foil together tightly so that the entire rack is enclosed in a foil tent.

 Try and leave as much room for circulation above the food as possible. (Leave the wok over medium heat for 10 minutes, then shut off the heat and let the food sit for a further 20 minutes, during which time the smoke dissipates.)

 Check your ingredients to see if they then need to be stir-fried or grilled to get fully cooked.

SHABNAM MINWALLA   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on April 02, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor