Black tea, orange zest and a host of aromatics give Tea-smoked Grilled Chicken with Star Anise & Orange a satisfyingly complex taste. Recipe below.
My few experiments with wood chips on the grill have met with decidedly mixed results. For one thing, no matter how long I’ve soaked them beforehand, they love to catch fire. And the subtle difference the wood smoke has made, at least when I was doing the grilling, has frankly left me underwhelmed.
Tea-smoking, however, is a whole other matter. This ancient Chinese cooking technique infuses foods with delicate, complex flavors as varied as the tea-smoking ingredients you choose. Tea-smoking has been used in Western home kitchens for a while too. Unfortunately, it’s usually practiced pretty much the same way it is in Chinese kitchens. Line a wok or other pot with foil, throw in your tea-smoking mixture and place your food to be smoked in a bamboo steamer and place it over the wok. Or as I like to think of it, smoke up your entire kitchen/house/apartment.
So when I saw that the August/September issue of Fine Cooking magazine featured ways to move tea-smoking out of the kitchen and onto the grill outside, I got excited. Chef and James Beard-nominated cookbook author Robert Danhi has made a lifelong commitment to the demystification of Southeast Asian cuisine for home cooks, and it shows in this article. He offers simple, straightforward recipes with suggestions for variations. He also explains the process of tea-smoking and the roles the various ingredients play.
Tea-smoking basics. In addition to the flavorings you choose—star anise, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, five-spice powder and citrus zest are all good options—there are three key ingredients for tea-smoking. Loose tea leaves add their own fragrance to the aromatic smoke; you can use various teas which will all provide their own variations, but any black tea will be successful. Brown sugar acts as a coloring agent, according to Danhi, giving food “a rich amber color and a hint of sweetness.” Uncooked rice serves as the fuel source in the packet, keeping the other ingredients smoking while on the grill.
For my first shot at tea-smoking, I went with chicken, a perfect blank canvas for absorbing flavors. I chose drumsticks and thighs specifically because they would take a while to cook, giving the smoke time to do its work. And I of course improvised on the ingredients, mixing and matching from a variety of recipes, including a couple of my own. A pair of side dishes that would work beautifully with this recipe are Marion’s Poison Gas Potatoes and my Grilled Sesame Zucchini.
Tea-smoked Grilled Chicken with Star Anise & Orange
1/4 cup loose black tea
1/4 cup uncooked white rice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
9 whole star anise
zest of medium orange, in large strips
4 each, chicken drumsticks and thighs
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prepare grill for cooking. Whether using charcoal or gas grill, you want medium-high heat.
Prepare the tea-smoking packet. Heap the first six ingredients in the center of a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil—or a double thickness of regular aluminum foil. (To zest the orange, use a vegetable peeler and try to get as little of the bitter white pith as possible.) Mix ingredients with your hands. Fold two sides in, then fold up the ends to create a packet. Foil should be folded loosely, leaving gaps for smoke to escape. Using the tip of a knife, carefully pierce the foil on the top side of the packet 5 or 6 times to create additional smoke vents.
When grill is ready, set the foil tea-smoking packet directly on the hot coals (or with a gas grill, on top of a metal burner shield). Lightly oil the grate and put it in place. Cover the grill (leaving vents open on charcoal grills). Let packet heat for 10 minutes and check for smoke—if it’s not smoking, cover the grill and check in another few minutes.
Grill the chicken. Trim excess fat from chicken pieces. Pat them dry with paper towels—an important step, according to Fine Cooking: “Dry food will absorb the smoke better and will pick up a more even color and flavor.” Season chicken generously with salt and pepper on both sides.
Arrange chicken pieces on the grill skin side up. Be careful to not place it directly over the tea-smoking packet, to avoid an overpowering smoke flavor. Close grill and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, turning once halfway through. Chicken is done when an instant read thermometer registers 165ºF in the thickest portion and chicken has an uneven brown color. Transfer chicken pieces to a serving platter and tent with foil. Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.