Food smoked with tea leaves is a centuries-old culinary technique that lends a delicate smoked flavor to seafood, pork, chicken, and other meats. It can be traced back to ancient China, where cooks would heat a mixture of tea leaves and uncooked rice in a wok until it smoked, then use the trapped smoke to cook and flavor their dishes. Tea smoking is a quick and effective way to add intriguing flavor to your food, and it requires relatively few tools.
Chinese cooks tend to choose naturally tender meats like chicken thigh, pork belly, duck, salmon, oysters and mussels for tea smoking. That said, you can choose your favorite meats and experiment with various temperatures, cooking times and tea types. Tender tomatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables also taste great when infused with smoky tea flavor.
Best Teas to Use
Black teas impart deep, dark caramel notes – perfect for red meats, turkey or salmon. Green tea varieties impart fragrant grassy notes – nice for white fish or chicken. Chai teas will add a spicy note and herbal teas can add floral notes for an extra depth of flavor. Experiment with seasonings like cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise.
How to Smoke Your Food with Tea
To get started, you’ll need a wok or pan with a tight-fitting lid, and a wire rack or steamer to place the food on. If you don’t have a lid, you may use foil instead.
Step 1: Prepare Your Wok
Line your wok with 3-4 layers of foil. Allow the edges of the foil to overhang the sides of the wok.
Step 2: Prepare Your Tea Mixture
Combine equals parts loose tea leaves with uncooked rice, along with any seasonings, spices and herbs of your choosing. Some chefs also choose to add brown sugar to help speed up the smoking process.
Step 3: Add the Tea Mixture to the Wok
Spread the mixture evenly over the base of the wok. Heat just until the tea leaves begin to smoke.
Step 4: Smoke the Food
Place the wire rack or steamer roughly 5cm above the tea mixture, and set the food on the rack. Cover the food with the wok lid or foil, and cook until done.
Depending on the type and thickness of the meat that you’re preparing, you may need to precook your meat before smoking it to ensure doneness. Be sure not to let the tea leaves smoke for too long, or you risk the smoky flavor becoming too bitter.
Most importantly, remember that tea smoking is an art, not a science. Experiment with tea types, spices, smoking times, temperatures and meats. Savor the gentle, smoked flavors in your cuisine!