Move over, mesquite: Tea-smoking infuses grilled chicken with delicate Asian flavors

by Terry B on August 25, 2010

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. fc106fc-finE.inddChef 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
Serves 4

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.


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni August 25, 2010 at 6:28 am

I never knew how to do this – thanks! I’ve eaten and LOVED tea smoked foods before, but never ventured down that path – perhaps because my grill is kinda old and funky. But this gives me inspiration, and inspiration gives me courage.

kirsten August 25, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Wow! very exciting looking (never heard of tea-smoked foods) and thanks for making it sound so easy. Definitely doing this one!

Robert Danhi August 25, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Oh yeah, Fine Cooking and I did videos of each step…check it out!

Terry B August 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Toni, it really is easy and the results were quite delicious. Using the grill as the Fine Cooking piece explained it made everything simple. Courage, my friend!

Thanks, Kirsten! Hope you like it.

Robert, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! True to your approach to Asian cooking, you really demystified this technique. Everyone, do check out the video link above. It clearly illustrates making the tea-smoking packets. (I do still advocate piercing the packet on top with a knife to allow more smoke to escape, even though the video doesn’t show this.)

City Share August 25, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I had never heard of tea smoking either. It sounds like the results would be wonderful. I don’t have a grill, so I might have to settle for the wok and bamboo steamer method… with open window and fans.

judy August 26, 2010 at 12:05 am


cherie August 26, 2010 at 2:22 am

My oh my – is this fun!!! and so delicious. My husband who is always questioning “what’s next” couldn’t grasp this concept but watched the video on line. We made the tea smoked salmon. I couldn’t wait to open the packet of foil to see and smell the smoking products. FYI – go somewhere and buy bulk tea – I was so anxious to try this, it took more time to open the individual tea bags than to get the bar-b-que ready. Thanks for sharing this.

Terry B August 26, 2010 at 3:17 am

City Share—If you want to try the stovetop approach, just Google tea smoking; most of the recipes you’ll find use that method and will describe it in greater detail than I have here. To me, though, one advantage of the grill approach is that more even heat is applied to the food you’re cooking.

Thanks for stopping by, Judy.

Cherie—I’m so glad you enjoyed this cooking technique! The salmon recipe looked good to me too, but I wanted to start with chicken to really get the flavor of the tea-smoking. I imagine the big-flavored salmon was wonderful! And you’re right about getting loose tea—although given that tea is having a moment these days, finding loose tea isn’t as easy as you might think it would be.

Christina August 26, 2010 at 3:30 am

De-illy-icious. It’s so hot, we’ve (mostly) given up cooking inside now. It’s just a daily choice between the woodfire or the gas grill. The gas grill wins most frequently for ease, but for smoke, the woodfire wins once a week or so. I think I’ll try this on one of the gas grill nights. Thanks for sharing such a yummy looking dish.

I hope summer is treating you well!

Laura [What I Like] August 26, 2010 at 2:03 pm

This sounds like so much fun! I’m headed out to CA to see the family over labor day so I will most certainly be commandeering the grill for this.

Dani H August 26, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I’ve never heard of tea-smoking. Gorgeous photo, Terry. Thanks for another unusual recipe!

Terry B August 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Thanks, Christina—the summer is treating us well! Your talk of wood smoke makes me want to try some wood chips again, although maybe in a foil packet to control the fire-ups and perhaps with some herbs.

Laura, I’m sure your parents are delighted whenever you commandeer the grill or the kitchen on your visits.

Thanks, Dani! Before this, I’ve mostly encountered tea-smoking on menus in Chinatown. But this method is so easy and quite delicious—and I’m happy to report that the leftovers were even tastier.

Mary August 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Your instructions are wonderful and I must tell you I love this recipe. This is my first visit to your blog but it will not be my last. I really love your recipes and the food you feature here. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Blessings…Mary

Judy August 31, 2010 at 4:33 am

smoked foods sound awesome… i just need to muster up the courage to do this at home in a tiny kitchen!

Terry B August 31, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Thanks, Mary! I’m glad to have discovered your blog too (and will also be back).

Good luck, Judy. Just be prepared for your smoke detector go off. In one apartment we had, the smoke detector was so poorly placed that the most ordinary cooking using the oven could set it off. At Thanksgiving (or other major oven meals), we would just remove the battery until we were done cooking.

katie August 31, 2010 at 6:27 pm

We love to smoke – anything and everything (smoked pasta). Never tried tea-smoking, though. I think I’ll try it with a pork tenderloin this weekend…. let you know!
We normally use small pieces of apple or oak – commercial wood chips not available here. Mon mari just keeps them in a bucket of water all the time.

Patrick July 27, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Roasted whole coffee beans are tremendous, also.
Try it !

love cooking July 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm

It not only look so delicious. I guess the process of cooking must be fun. It is just like doing an interesting experiment. Never try this before. Guess it will work well with fish fillet too. The flavor of tea smoking must be very nice.

Richard Brownfield May 12, 2014 at 2:28 am

Here is an idea; it also limits smoke in the house. 1) dry rub and salt chicken pieces; cover with plastic-wrap | set in refrigerator 8-10 hours overnight. Rise chicken pieces in perpetration to…2) boil the chicken with white pepper, onion, star anise and fresh ginger root for 45 minutes (conclusion of boil, leave in pot for all to cool-down together. Drain chicken and refrigerate. Line BOTH -WOK & LID with heavy foil: plenty of overhang to allow total seal. The BITTOM (Wok-portion) requires a thick, 3″-wide seam, so the smoke mix does not burn-through. Place dry mix on the seam(rice, Jasmine-scented black tea, orange peel strips, brown sugar & Szechwan peppercorns. place Internal flat-round rack inside over the mix and distribute chicken pieces. SEAL THE FOIL. Set stovetop burner on HIGH heat, place Wok-assembly; After 10 minutes, reduce heat to medium for another 20 minutes. Now, TURN OFF THE HEAT AND LEAVE IT SEALED–3 hours!! After 3 hours, either remove chicken pieces to grill immediately or, wrap in Al-foil and refrigerate {I prefer this foil-wrap since chicken continues to cook internal as the smoking sets into the meat}. NEXT DAY.
Yes, is finally time to grill. I like to grill outdoors over natural Mesquite LUMP charcoal. Lump Mesquite is higher in temperature. The mesquite adds its unique flavor and aroma to this already complex, depth of flavors.
Since the chicken has been cooked twice in plenty of moisture, it isn’t dry; so the high-heat grilling step simply warms the fowl while high-temperature crisps the skin. Plus, the chicken IS Cooked, thus safe to eat. Believe me – I am neither Asian nor eat timid-foods: this is NOT ‘over-smoked’. I followed and served this procedure 33 years-ago; final grilling-step was performed at remote location in Ohio-wilderness with a 25′ waterfall and narrow running stream, under-cut caves. It was my birthday, it was October (leaves hadn’t changed color yet) and the weather was perfect. [INDEED! Everything was policed and cleaned; hence, returned to same natural state before the party.

Terry B May 12, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Richard, that sounds like a delicious way to prepare chicken—a great memory too! I would encourage you to try this method as well. I’m sure it won’t replace yours, but you just might end up with two tea-smoked chicken recipes in your arsenal.

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