Can smoke, will cook!!!

February 15th, 2012

When John asked me to do a blog on bbq fish à la Inde, for people who ‘love to smoke their fish and have it too’, I said, “Sure! I can help them do both!!”

You might not be able to have your cake and eat it too, but you can with fish!

But before I begin, if you want to follow the recipe on a single page, then please click smoked red snapper recipe.

“Well John, we can do a tandoori fish with different marinades. It’s no big deal.”

But I could see that this Aussie guy wasn’t quite sure if my ‘no big deal’ really was so small.

“No one has a tandoor in their backyard, Ajoy, we need to do something that will make an ‘Aussie’ cook it at home.”

cooking at home isn’t a barrier to making amazing food

“How about cooking it on the barbie?” I suggested.

“Sure,” John replied.

But I knew what he was going to say next so I preempted him, “But,” I said, leaning forward, “Not every house has a BBQ in their backyard, lots of people live in units and can’t smoke out their neighbours and. . .” I continued, looking out of the window as the rain lashed down as it has almost all summer, “this means there is no way they can cook this dish. So, how about cooking it in the oven, or still better if we can ‘smoke’ it on the electric or gas burner?”

I could see John liked this idea but he still needed convincing that it could actually happen!

So, if we just marinated the fish in a tandoori marinade, cooked it in the pan, or a pot, or a skillet, or just steamed it we would have tandoori fish, just like they do ‘back home’ . . . but that would be cheating!

smoked fish and tomato chutney

So, memory recall!!

It’s 1986.

Place: Taj Savoy, Ooty.

I am on assignment to cook food for the top officials of Citicorp and in one of their ‘themed’ dinners we were asked to create a ‘smoked fish’ for the ‘kebab’ dinner.

Now, as most of you will know and some of you might not, a kebab is literally cooking a large piece of meat without a sauce. Make this meat smaller and you get, guess what?, tikka! The ‘meat’, can of course be fish as well.

Mr Rao, who was the boss of Citicorp back then, was most adamant that no two kebabs on the menu should have the same cooking technique. It was therefore imperative that the kebabs come from all over India. He even included some from neighbouring Pakistan.

So, to give him what he wanted we served paththar ka gosht (boneless lamb barbequed on a stone slab) and khorme ka kebab from Hyderabad, kakori kebab (a very tender lamb kebab) from Bhopal, murgh tikka (chicken tikka) from the Punjab, chapli kebab (a beef kebab) from Peshawar, and so on . . . including a fish kebab that was not cooked in the tandoor.

Mr Rao wanted the chefs to create a fish kebab similar to a smoked fish using hickory.

Now, using hickory would have been easy, except that Ooty had no Hickory at that time and we were running out of time and had to do this dish!
So, never ones to be beaten by a lack of hickory (or whatever the missing ingredient happens to be), the chefs decided to trial smoking whole pomfret (a type of fish) using the bark of gum trees.

It worked beautifully except that the fish had a strong flavor of eucalyptus!

Thank whichever almighty G-d you follow that this was only a trial so I could keep my job or else. . . so we kept experimenting.

Next we tried smoking the fish using corn husks and tea leaves and it worked wonders!!

We called the dish dhuyein ki machchi!!

So, maybe it is time to recollect these memories into something concrete and try and create this dish for John and my Aussie friends.

ingredients for smoked fish from top, clockwise: ground garlic, ground ginger, chilli powder, turmeric powder, kebab garam masala (ground), oil, lemon wedges, salt; plate-sized NZ snapper (gutted and scaled); tea leaves for smoking

Then there’s the tomato chutney that you serve alongside and prepare whilst your fish is smoking in the oven.

ingredients for tomato chutney, clockwise: kari leaves, chilli powder, oil, black mustard seeds, dry red chillies, chick pea lentils, white lentils, salt, asafoetida powder, lemon juice, turmeric, tamarind paste, tomato purée, fresh coriander leaves

Step 1

the fish can be red snapper (pictured), baby barramundi, flathead, in fact use any whole fish that can comfortably fill a plate. It’s always a good idea to keep the fish on ice when out of the fridge

Step 2

What’s smoking? To infuse the fish with a smokey flavour, you need something to smoke. Pictured is black tea with some of the ground spices that make up the kebab garam masala…… You don’t have to use tea! If you have time, use the fibre husks from sweet corn, dry in the sun for a couple of days. You can also use shaved hickory (available at all good BBQ stores)

Step 3

If you’re smoking the fish on a stove you’ll need: heavy-based pan, glass lid, mixing bowl, whisk and a metal rack

Step 4

If you’re smoking the fish in an oven you’ll need: baking tray, mixing bowl, whisk, metal rack

Step 5

click kebab garam masala
If you’re smoking the fish on a stove you’ll need: heavy-based pan, glass lid, mixing bowl, whisk and a metal rack

Step 6

grind until garam masala resembles course sand

Step 7

your fish should be scaled and gutted – clean the insides thoroughly

Step 8

on a chopping board, score the fish, three slashes on each side, about 1/2 cm deep

Step 9

this is the right cutting depth

Step 10

After you have scored all the fish, discard the ice.

pat fish dry with a paper towel or the marinade won’t stick

Step 11

pat dry the insides of the fish as well

Step 12

place fish in tray and cover with paper towelling whilst preparing the marinade

Step 13:Preparing the marinade.

add 1 tbsp salt to mixing bowl

Step 14

add 1 tbsp garlic paste to mixing bowl

Step 15

add 1 tbsp  ginger paste to mixing bowl

Step 16

fold salt, garlic and ginger paste together

Step 17

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

Step 18

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

Step 19

add 2 tbsp ground kebab garam masala and fold, add any remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

Step 20

add polyunsaturated vegetable oil and fold

Step 21

your marinade is now ready and should look (more or less!) like this

Step 22

smear marinade over fish and into scored cuts

Step 23

smear marinade into fish cavity as well

Step 24

this is how much marinade should be on the fish (both sides)

Step 25

folding in remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

Step 26

if cooking on the stove, add tea leaf mixture to pan – the tea leaves should be laid about 1-cm thick, covering about 60% of the base

Step 27

place fish on rack, add more marinade if necessary

Step 28

cover pan with lid – a glass lid is ideal as you can see when the fish is ready without having to take off the lid (which you don’t want to do as the smoke will escape). As the fish cooks, the gills will open up and the dorsal fin will rise. The fish is cooked when the scored cuts ‘weep’ (fill with moisture).

Step 29

scored cuts ‘weeping’ (moisture will bead there) means the fish is cooked

Step 30

If using oven: turn on temp. to 180-200 C and also turn on the grill (if your oven is able to do both), to medium heat. Place tea leaves on aluminium foil in a tray on top shelf of the oven (closest to the grill). Tea leaves should be laid about 2 cm thick. Keep fish on the rack and place on tray. Then place on shelf underneath the tea-leaf tray, as shown above!

Step 31

A close-up of the tea leaves in the oven – they will start to smoke

Step 32

The fish is ready when the gills are fully open and scored cuts are weeping

Step 33
Making the chutney that goes alongside the fish (prepare whilst the fish is being smoked).

add 2 tbsp polyunsaturated vegetable oil to a hot frying pan

Step 34

when the oil is smoking, add 1 tsp black mustard seeds – if the oil is hot, they will immediately sizzle and pop

Step 35
Making the chutney that goes alongside the fish (prepare whilst the fish is being smoked).

add whole chillies and fold

Step 36

add 2 tbsp lentils and fold

Step 37
Making the chutney that goes alongside the fish (prepare whilst the fish is being smoked).

add 2 tbsp white lentils and fold till caramelised

Step 38

add 11/2 tsp salt and fold

Step 39

add 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder and fold

Step 40

add kari leaves and let crackle (this is pretty instantaneous)

Step 41

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

Step 42

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

Step 43

add 1 tbsp tamarind paste and fold

Step 44

add 2 cups tomato purée and fold (or you may add chopped tomatoes or a combination of both), cook until the oil separates and appears on the surface

Step 45

tear coriander, add to pan and fold

Step 46

add 1 tbsp lemon juice, to taste, and fold

Step 47

remove from stove – then serve chutney as it is, or if you prefer, blend it for a smoother texture

Step 48

your chutney is now ready!

Step 49

place fish and chutney on a serving dish and enjoy!

But before I let you loose into your own kitchen to do this there are a few things I’d like you to remember when smoking fish:

1. Never add lemon juice to the marinade, this moistens the fish and will ‘break’ it up when smoked. Add lemon juice to the fish after it has been smoked and removed from the oven and whilst it is still hot.

2. Avoid small fillets of fish as they are too delicate, use whole fish, especially when the fish is ‘plate sized’.

3. If using fillets of a bigger fish, crust the skin side (making sure you do not skin the fish, dry the skin side and apply the marinade, the skin will get crisp after smoking) and cover the flesh side with aluminium foil to prevent the fillet from drying out.

4. You may use any wood chips as long as they are safe! Please check this before you use them. Also, try rose leaves mixed with tea leaves, it creates the most fabulous aroma and taste!!

5. Remember, never fry the fish before smoking it like they do on MasterChef , nothing is worse than this as the smokey flavour does not permeate through the fish.

6. This is the best way to impress your wife/girlfriend for a slightly belated Valentine’s day, in case you forgot to take her out for dinner and if you are not in the dog house already!!

Serve this dish with a glass of  Iron Gate Sweet Semillion or a glass of Nazaaray Pinot Grigio!!

Any questions about the fish? Any trouble with obtaining good wood chips? Don’t know what hickory is but only know it from that nursery rhyme? Want to know something that’s totally off topic? Well, please write to me and let me know your thoughts/comments.

And please, no jokes like I’ve heard from my son’s friends about ‘smoking fish’ as they stand there imitating a guy smoking a cigarette but pretend it‘s a fish!

So, happy cooking till the next one!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!


  1. Ajoy Joshi

    Hello Rachel
    Fantastic!! that is great news.
    You may want to try smoking chicken next time!!
    happy cooking!!

  2. Rachel M

    The fish was AWESOME! I also covered individual servings of cabbage and corn on the cob in foil. I added a little butter, salt and pepper and smoked it along with the fish. The meal was delicious!

  3. Ajoy Joshi

    Hello Rachel,
    Great to hear from you.
    Just wandered how did you go with the ‘smoking’ of the fish?
    Hope it worked out?
    Did you know that you can partly smoke the fish and finish the cooking in the oven as well to keep the smoked flavours ‘mild’.
    Happy cooking!!

  4. Rachel M

    Thank you so much for this awsome recipe. I have a deep freezer FULL of fish, all types and sizes. My husband is out fishing right now. I’m still intimidated by the grill so this will help me out tremendously. I was running out of ways to cook the fish. I’m making this tonight since all I have in my freezer is a pound of ground beef and tons of fish. Thanks again!

  5. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi there,
    Great to hear that you tried the fish and it Worked!
    As for the lentils, they will remain crunchy, if the heat is right, if not they do get a bit ‘tough’. You may alternately add some cashews and follow the rest of the process. Addition of the lentils is a very Southern Indian technique to give a nutty flavour to the dish. Cashews are a good substitute.
    Happy cooking!

  6. Anonymous

    this blog was amazing and we were so inspired we tried it this evening.
    just one question, the split chick pea lentils (i’m afraid i used just those and not white lentils as i couldn’t find any!) didn’t seem to cook by the time the oil separated so they had “bite” to them! any suggestions?

  7. Ajoy Joshi

    hello Spandana,
    give it a go and remember there are no limits when it comes to Indian food.
    John and I want to take everyone on a culinary journey through India starting with…
    and de-mistify this wonderful cuisine wrongly called a bl..dy CURRY!!
    regards, happy cooking,

  8. Ajoy Joshi

    hi Shruti, happy cooking and watch this space for more on seafood cooking in the weeks to come!
    Am planning a very special dish using seafood……
    happy cooking,

  9. Ajoy Joshi

    hi Philip,
    thanks for your query,
    here is what I mean….
    when using the fillet of a big fish it is important to keep the flesh on one side while there is no flesh on the stomach side, (obviously!), wipe it dry as the blog says. Now apply the marinade to the skin side of the fillet(step 22,23,24) and follow the recipe as per the blog. this will form a crust after smoking. The skin is edible after smoking and will keep the meat moist for a long time! Remember not to add any lemon juice to the marinade. this prevents the marinade from sticking to the skin, add it after the fish is smoked!
    enjoy your creation!!

  10. Spandana

    Very nice.. i loved the idea of smoking the fish!!

  11. Anonymous

    Horse! This was jaw-dropping WOW!!!
    Way 2 go,dude:-)!

  12. shrutisharma

    ABSOLUTELY fantastic. I’ve always wanted to to `more’ with fish but did not know how. Recipes I tried always left me disappointed . With these wonderfully detailed instructions and photos, I feel more confident about getting good results. Thank you !

  13. Philip TAYLOR

    Fascinating recipe, Ajoy, but one question if I may ? How does one “crust the skin side”, as in “If using fillets of a bigger fish, crust the skin side (making sure you do not skin the fish, dry the skin side and apply the marinade, the skin will get crisp after smoking)” ? What exactly is “crusting” ?

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