Every cuisine has its own set of ingredients that find place in a recipe only for the benefit of the aroma they impart to a dish. Now what if you could multiply that power, or if you knew of a host of other ways to give your dish an irresistible aroma? The answer lies in the art of smoking. “Smoking is a stone-age technique and has evolved over the centuries,” says Ajay Chopra, Executive Chef of Westin Mumbai. “Most of us in India are familiar with dhungar, the technique used to smoke many Awadhi dishes,” he tells us.
Whether it’s the outdoor grilling in the West or our process of dhungar, smoking lends itself to different foods rather beautifully. Chef Ajay lists out his favourites as smoked tomato soup, and an apple cigar pie. Yes, cigar. You don’t necessarily need coal for smoking foods. Even wood shavings from different trees give a dish a different dimension.
Dishing it up with cigar, mango wood
Chef Ajay says he likes to put a destroyed cigar to use to make a Granny Smith apple pie. “Its stark woody smell makes for a delicious pie.” At the hotel, pizzas coming out of their wood fired oven have a distinct aroma that comes from the use of mango wood. Sandalwood is also used to smoke a lot of Awadhi dishes, points out chef Ajay. “While some add a pinch of sandalwood powder, others prefer smoking the food with sandalwood itself.” Wood chips of fruit trees like cherry, apple and peach are known to infuse foods with a sweet flavour. They are mostly suited for delicate meats.
How to do the dhungar
You can give dhungar either before or after the dish is cooked. Place the meats/veggies you want to smoke in a big dish. Place a small steal/ceramic katori (bowl) in this dish. You can throw in spices like clove, cinnamon etc, if you like. Place a piece of coal directly on the flame. Turn it to ensure it’s evenly heated. Once hot, using the tongs place the coal in the small bowl you placed in the dish. Add two drops of ghee to the coal, and you will see it start emitting smoke. Cover the dish and let the smoke perforate your meats/veggies.
Some flavour-combos recommended for smoking foods on seriouseats.com
1. Sugar, rice, green tea, star anise, and coriander seeds to smoke chicken wings before broiling.
2. Sugar, rice, black tea, orange rinds, and cinnamon to smoke a whole chicken before roasting.
3. Cedar chips for salmon fillets before grilling.
4. Oak leaves or grape leaves under a hard cheese.
5. Fresh ginger peels, sugar, rice, cloves, and sichuan peppercorns for pork spare ribs before braising and glazing.
Jim Shahin’s smoking diaries
Jim Shahin writes the Smoke Signals barbecue column for Washington Post. After he tried indoor smoking a salmon fillet, he wrote, “...indoor smoking does not impart the same flavour as outdoor barbecue.” He described the fish as lacking in characteristic charcoal taste of grilling, but also wrote, “Yet the smoke was detectable. And the fish was as moist as any I’ve ever made. ...the moistness did not destroy the structural integrity of the fish. I think indoor smoking creates something of a sauna. The food is almost steamed as much as it is smoked.”
This is Jim Shahin, and our expectations may not be as sky-high as his. So, do give it a shot, and let us know how it turned out.
Spicing up a smoke
“Every mother has her signature bagaar/tadka based on her own concept on how much to heat the hing, cumin, chilli etc. Most South Indians do a full burnt chilli and this gives the sambar a unique flavour,” explains chef Ajay. You could do something similar with aloo subzi, he says. Once the subzi is ready, set it aside. In a small pan, add a blob of butter, once the butter melts, add sauf and elaichi, roast for a minute. Add this to the subzi. “It also goes well with lauki and chane ki dal,” he says.