As a young boy spending carefree summers at Kawhia, it was not uncommon to see local Maori at the Maketu marae placing sharks and stingrays on drying racks, with a smoky driftwood fire left smouldering away for a day or so under it. Traditionally that smoked fish would be stored for use in leaner times or traded with neighbouring inland tribes.
Today, smoking has become something of a culinary art, done less for subsistence purposes and more for adding variety to the dinner-table fare.
Modern smoking is done two ways: the more traditional ‘cold smoking’ method, using low temperatures and longer times, and ‘hot smoking’, which can take as little as 15 minutes. Regardless of which approach you take, smoking can be a simple procedure. For as long as I can remember, a Kilwell 15-minute ‘hot smoker’ provided part of my family’s enjoyment of the catch, with trout and the humble kahawai – ‘the people’s fish’ – the main species used. It was an uncomplicated process.
Both trout and kahawai have relatively oily, firm flesh, making them great for the smoker, but, like all good dishes, preparation is the key for best results. For a start, both fish should be despatched immediately, and kahawai should be bled as soon as possible to reduce the presence of dark flesh in the fillet, which has a ‘strong’ flavour and is not to everyone’s taste. Bleeding kahawai can be a messy business. Dad used to place them in a drawstring sugar sack and lower it into the water.
When off the water, the fish need to be ‘split’ – the fillets removed by carefully cutting along the backbone and over the ribcage, leaving the fish in two halves but attached along the dorsal line.
A 2:1-ratio rub of plain (un-iodised) salt and brown sugar is mixed in a bowl and spread evenly over the flesh, with the fish then left in the refrigerator for an hour or two before being placed in the smoker.
This smoker is essentially a lidded metal box with a raised bottom. A couple of handfuls of manuka sawdust, available from tackle and hardware stores, is spread on the bottom (to make cleaning up easy, put tinfoil underneath first), and the fish laid on a rack above it, with the lid on.
Prior to smoking, I wipe the excess moisture off the fish with paper towels, then rub a capful of spiced rum (kahawai) or Drambuie (trout) into the flesh. A sprinkling of mixed herbs or cracked pepper can also enhance the flavour.
The box is then placed over a couple of metal dishes filled with burning methylated spirits. Walk away, and in 15-20 minutes you will have hot, smoked fish ready for the table.
Cold smoking takes quite a bit longer – half a day or so for the smoking process alone. This system involves creating a smoke box to accommodate a smouldering fire in the base, with the fish hung on hooks or placed on racks above it.
Small pieces of manuka are again the favourite fuel, leaving the flesh with a golden glaze when the smoking is done properly. Do not use leaves, grasses etc – while these will create plenty of smoke, they leave a bitter taste. The only exception is the leaves of some fruit trees.
Brining the fish or game is an important part of this process. A traditional brine – 500g of plain salt combined with 250g brown sugar – is mixed with a litre of water to help draw the moisture out of the flesh. Allow roughly a litre of brine for every 500g of fish. I prefer to add a commercially-prepared rub/brine to the flesh, then place it in zip-lock plastic bags and leave it in the fridge overnight – or longer. That done, I wash the brine off and apply a light coating of maple syrup just before putting the fish in the smoker.
Cold smoking is made easy today, with electric smokers available in several sizes. The Bradley brand of smokers, for example, control both the heat and the smoking process electronically. You set it up and walk away, the unit then automatically feeding compressed and variously ‘flavoured’ wood bisquettes into the smoker – genius!
An innovative Kiwi company, UFO, has a smoke ‘generator’ that can be added to a 15-minute smoker, barrel or enclosed barbecue – even an old television cabinet – to create a cold smoker. Smoking the catch adds another dimension to your recreational fishing and can be as simple or complicated as you’re prepared to make it. And it is not just fish that benefits from smoking – cheese, chicken, salami, sausages and shellfish can all be enhanced with a whiff of smoke.
The 15-minute smoker needs little introduction to most readers. As mentioned, I first encountered the compact little unit as a youngster when Dad smoked trout and kahawai in it. In addition to being a particularly versatile smoker, the fact it’s heated by a dish of meths means it is very portable. The first ‘quick’ smoker brand I recall was from Kilwell; it has since been copied by many manufacturers.
As previously mentioned, UFO has created a cold smoke generator that fits the conventional ‘hot’ smoke box, giving users a choice of smoking styles. I have used the smoke generator in conjunction with a smoke box a good number of times now, and it works a treat.
UFO’s Wayne Dil has come up with multiple smoking and outdoor cooking variations and devices, and these are available through a variety of camping and fishing stores nationwide. Check the options out at www.ufo.co.nz.
Some 10 years ago, I was given a Kiwi Sizzler smoker to use. This sits somewhere between a hot and a cold smoker, with a gas element used to heat a cast-iron smoulder box. Wood chips soaked in water (soaking prolongs the burn and intensifies the smoky flavour) are added to the smoulder box and heated by the gas, which can be regulated to vary the heat. The items intended for smoking are placed in (up to six) racks. I have seen a UFO smoke generator added to this product when a colder smoke is required, and it proved effective.
Because of its size and the need for a gas bottle, the Kiwi Sizzler is a little less portable than the quick smoker.
Another smoker I have used over the years is the Big Chief, its electric element heating a pan containing sawdust to create the smoke. While reliant on electricity, the Big Chief smoker is loaded from the top, an internal racking system being lifted out whole and loaded, before being dropped back into place.
Another product that has yet a different approach is the Anuka electric hot food smoker. This unit cooks while it smokes, and features a cast-iron bottom and stainless steel top. While it is electric, the Anuka is quite portable and comes complete with a 60-minute power controller, smoking trivet and cover. Because it is heated electrically, no fumes, matches or fuel are required.
THE UNDISPUTED Rolls Royce of portable smokers has to be the Bradley, distributed by Gourmet Innovations. Just as with a ‘Roller’, you are paying top dollar, but for hassle-free smoking it’s hard to go past.
In addition to the electronically-controlled unit conveying compressed wood bisquettes onto a small hotplate at the smoker’s base, the heat and smoke delivery is controlled to produce a variety of smoking styles – anything from a true extended cold smoke through to a quick hot smoke.
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