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chinese tea-smoked chicken

Recipe: chinese tea-smoked chicken

Sometimes I think I need to get out more.

Is there a recipe that you grew up with and loved, believing that it was some special family recipe, only to learn later that everyone knows how to make this dish and what? did you grow up under a rock? That seems to have happened to me on several occasions. The first one that I recall was when I was maybe 3 years old. My paternal grandparents were visiting from Taiwan. I didn’t endear myself to my Nai Nai (Chinese for paternal grandmother) at first because I kept hearing my parents talk about Yieh Yieh Nai Nai coming to visit. Yieh Yieh is what Kris and I were to address Grandpa as. But no one actually spelled this out for me. So the first I thing I said when they arrived was, “That’s Yieh Yieh Nai Nai,” looking at my Grandpa, “but who is she?” pointing to Grandma.

I fixed that blunder pretty quickly though. Nai Nai made some toast one morning and gave me a slice. I thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted and kept raving about it. Toasted Wonder Bread. I thought she was the only one who knew how to make this amazing snack. Toasted Wonder Bread. I’ll bet she got a kick out of that since she wasn’t really into cooking.

But my maternal grandma, Po Po knows how to cook. She made this smoked chicken on occasion throughout my childhood and knew it was a favorite of mine. Po Po lived with us for the first 9 years or so of my childhood (they tell me she arrived when I was 2, but as far as I’m concerned, she was there from the start) and she’s so much more than a grandma to me. When she moved to Michigan to live with one of my aunts, she used to make a batch of smoked chicken whenever Kris and I visited. She would laugh while Kris and I fought over how many pieces each of us was to get. My mom learned how to make it and then Kris and I would fight over the chicken when we went home to visit. It’s that good!

use sichuan peppercorns

mix with salt

So I finally got around to watching my mom make the chicken this spring, and I took copious notes and promptly misplaced them. Meanwhile, I began to read random mentions of tea-smoked chicken on the food blogosphere and a (very) dim light went off in the back of my head, “hey… our family recipe uses tea leaves…” I called Mom this week to rehash the instructions and somehow wound up recycling the piece of paper I jotted the notes on. When I searched on some tea-smoked chicken recipes, I realized they were similar to what I was making. I called her yet again when I made the chicken last night, just to make sure I wasn’t screwing it up (too much). “This is tea-smoked chicken, right?” In some way I wanted her to say, “No – this is Po’s recipe.” But instead she said, “Yes, shing ji.”

Oh. This was not in the manual on How to be a good Chinese daughter. Not that I read any such manual! ha ha ha *snort*

rub the chicken legs in the salt and pepper and let sit overnight

cover in cold water and bring to boil

I suppose you could use chicken drumsticks in a pinch, but I really prefer the whole leg. And honestly, I hate using conventional chicken. The fat is so… fatty and yellow and abundant. Organic chicken is much leaner with far better flavor. If you can 1) find them and 2) spring for them, by all means I encourage you to do so. If you get the whole leg, there is usually a large bony piece at the opposite end of the foot. Mom told me to cut that off with a cleaver. Please be careful when doing this. I still haven’t mastered how to use a Chinese cleaver without sending samples flying all over the kitchen. I reserve those pieces and cook them with the rest of the chicken in the pot of water.

remove the chicken and allow to cool

the tea, sugar, flour set up

Let the water come to a boil and then (here is where message and memory get garbled) turn off the heat and cover the pot for 10 minutes. Mom instructs that the chicken is ready when you poke it and the juices run clear. If the juices are pink, then let it cook longer. Once the chicken juices run clear, remove them from the water and let them cool on a plate. That water, by the way, is good broth. I let it simmer for an hour longer with those bone pieces and made egg-drop soup tonight with the homemade broth.

While the chicken is cooling, get your smoker set up. There are probably more elegant ways to do this, but this is the method Grandma uses and it works for me. You will need four clean short cans with the tops, bottoms, and labels removed. I think tuna fish cans might be a tad short and their rounded bottoms don’t lend well to can openers. I used water chestnut cans – and I only had three (four is more stable) but then again, I only had 5 chicken legs instead of the standard 8. Lay down a large sheet of foil (or two – as mine was too narrow to wrap around the entire deal) and sprinkle the flour, brown sugar, and tea over the foil. Set the cans down in the most stable configuration and place a metal rack over the cans.

try to arrange the chicken in a single layer

wrap the foil up and seal it shut

So I hope you’ll avoid the mistakes I made by reading about the mistakes I made. We have a small second tier rack on our grill. I should have removed that, because it ended up squashing the top of the foil envelope onto the chicken. The points of contact prevented nice smoking. Take extra care in moving the foil-wrapped ensemble to the grill. I tore a hole in the bottom. Now that I think of it, maybe another rack on the bottom (inside the foil envelope) would have been good for structural support. Also, I put the foil ensemble on the grill first and then I turned the grill on (gas grill, obviously). It’s just too fragile a thing to mess around with over an open flame although you are welcome to try with a charcoal grill. The amount of tea and flour and sugar you use, as well as the amount of time on the grill will determine the degree of smokiness. I put too much flour and tea and sugar by at least double (I found this out while talking on the phone with Mom after it was too late). Oh, and the rack you use will become pretty stained, so don’t use your best one.

not bad considering all of my deviations (i.e. screw ups)

Chinese Tea-Smoked Chicken
[print recipe]

8 whole chicken legs (preferably organic)
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns (which are NOT black peppercorns)
4 tbsps salt
2 Lipton tea bags, tea removed from the bags
1 tsp flour
1 tbsp brown sugar

4 clean short cans, with bottoms, tops, and labels removed
1 grill or cooling rack
aluminum foil

If you want to remove the bony end (opposite the foot end) of the whole leg, use a Chinese cleaver to lop it off (carefully). Reserve the bony end. Mix the peppercorns and the salt in a small bowl and then rub the mixture over the chicken legs. Place the chicken legs in a covered dish in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and wash the salt off. Place chicken in a large pot and cover with cold water (you can add those bony parts here to make a nice broth). Bring to boil over high heat. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. At ten minutes, poke the chicken with a chopstick or fork. If the juices are red or pink, cover the pot and let it stand another 5 minutes or turn the heat on again to bring to boil and shut off the heat. Basically, we want to get the juices running clear. Remove chicken from pot and let cool completely on a plate.

Set up a sheet of foil (two pieces if necessary) large enough to wrap around a stack of the cans, rack, and chicken (see photograph above). Sprinkle the tea, flour, and brown sugar evenly over the foil in an area roughly the size of the rack. Set the can rings down in a stable configuration and place the rack on top of the cans. Place the cooled chicken legs, skin-side up in a single layer on the rack. Wrap the whole thing up like a tent and seal the top and sides by folding over twice. Carefully move this contraption to your grill. Once it is settled on the grill, turn it on high for 15 minutes. Check the state of the chicken by opening the foil and looking to see how brown it is. If it is quite brown by 15 minutes, reduce the heat to low-medium for another 15 minutes. If it isn’t terribly brown looking, check again in 5 minutes on high until it reaches a nice deep reddish brown color and then reduce heat to low-medium for 15 minutes. Turn off the grill and open the foil (I’d open it outside because it’s an awfully smoky ordeal and will smoke up your house if you do it indoors). Move the chicken to a platter or chop it up before serving.

30 nibbles at “chinese tea-smoked chicken”

  1. peabody says:

    I learned later on in life that all of my childhood favorites came out of the Betty Crocker cookbook(since my mom had no idea how to cook when she married at 19). She has since made them her own and become a great cook, but is was slightly disappointing. :)
    I have never had tea-smoked chicken…it sounds flavorful though.

  2. Patricia Scarpin says:

    I love how nicely browned they are – yummy!

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  4. HolyBasil says:

    Awesome recipe – thanks for all the tips. I saw that guy from Cook’s Illustrated do something very similar for oven-smoked ribs – he used oolong tea. I think I’ll try making this for my mom when she visits as she’s never had this dish. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  5. Wendy says:

    Gorgeous pictures. Cannot wait to try this out! Will let you know how it goes.

  6. jenyu says:

    Peabody – it’s a subtle flavor, but somehow the chicken is addictive. I love it. It’s hard for me to know which are family recipes and which are standards because my parents don’t use recipes!

    Patricia – thanks! If the foil didn’t touch the tops, they would have been that beautiful brown all over :)

    HolyBasil – Definitely tell me how it works out for you!

    Wendy – please do :)

  7. Amy Zitzer says:

    I just had to tell you that I made this tonight – and it was just so delicious. Thank you so much for sharing this and all your gorgeous recipes!

  8. jenyu says:

    Amy – so happy to hear it! thank you :)

  9. Sherry Namburi says:

    This question might be really stupid but did you close the lid on the grill or just leave it open and let the foil be the smoker? I’ve never smoked anything before.

  10. jenyu says:

    Sherry – not stupid at all!! I do close the lid on the grill or else it won’t get hot enough to smoke the chicken, me thinks. I’m not very experienced with smoking meats either, but when I’ve seen my mom make this, she always closes the lid.

  11. nyjlm says:

    I’m so excited that I found your directions- I’ve only ever found recipes for this in a wok, and I’ve worried about how smoky the house would get. But the grill? Oh, we can do that!

  12. jenyu says:

    NyJim – yay!!! :)

  13. Amy says:

    Ok, since I made this the first time this summer, it has become a huge favorite among my friends. They practically demand it once a week! So I just wanted to thank you again for the awesome recipe. It’s so great for summer. I’ve actually been making enormous amounts of chicken wings. They turn out so beautifully.

    You rock!

  14. jenyu says:

    Amy – Wow, you’ve probably made this recipe more than I have! :) Great!! thanks and I’m so happy you like the recipe!

  15. Wend says:

    Could you potentialy do this in an oven in the kitchen? what setting would you use?

  16. jenyu says:

    Wend – I am not sure, I’ve never attempted and I have a feeling it might be difficult (as you want the tea to smoke and it may make your kitchen smokey?).

  17. jennc says:

    hi jenn

    cheers for the recipe – the set-up is really versatile and i’ve always wanted to be able to ‘smoke’ indoors w/o elaborate equipment. i love hearing about the techniques you’ve learned from your parents. i’m in a similar position (albeit still got a bit of catching up to do) after discovering my love for food and cooking not long ago.

    i am always impressed by how they have ways to improvise. like, all these fancy steamers with timers and temp control and my mom just props her plate with enough food for a family of 4 on a tiny rack and goes straight back to a verbal spat with me for the way i’m dressed/the places i hang out/etc etc etc. Oh i do love family.

    p.s. might i say what a beautiful name you have ;)

  18. jenyu says:

    jenn – thanks! It’s always a little bit of a struggle, because they each have their own way of doing things ;)

  19. Tricia says:

    I just won a indoor smoker on a blog and am surfing the web for some easy recipes. I just got some drumsticks (bcos my 6 yr old just love ’em) in the fridge. So, I just rubbed them with salt and peppercorns and it’s sitting the fridge for to marinade.

    Can’t wait to smoke the drumsticks tomorrow!!!

    Thanks for sharing the recipe!!

  20. KittyT says:

    You can do this in the kitchen. I have and with a smoking mixture maybe twice as big as the one in this recipe (but I have yet to test this recipe). The trick is to make your foil tent as airtight as possible. And of course, I always keep the vent at max. It smells of smoke, but barely anything escapes, mostly water vapour.

    I use a big stainless steel pan (the same I use for roasting turkey) and line it with extra-wide sturdy foil, but make sure to cut the pieces so that they exceed the height of the pan by at least 6 inches. I put the smoking mixture at the bottom of the pan and I put a grill at least two inches away from the bottom. I put the meat on the grill. Then I tent a length of foil over the food and fold the lining foil over and seal it tightly.

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  22. Rev Davis says:

    Have you tried it with Lapsang Souchong tea? The tea has a smokey flavor.

  23. Carla B. says:

    Been wanting to try this for a while. Not grilling weather, so I lined the bottom of my wok with aluminum foil, used the round steaming rack that came with the wok, and the lid to seal. Certainly it was necessary to use the range hood to keep the house from getting smokey, because the wok lid didn’t seal perfectly, but all-in-all it worked like a charm. Since I was worried about having to abort the process due to smoke, I cooked the chicken thighs pretty well in the first stage – brought to a boil, then simmered on low for 30 min. Then 30 min. in the wok-smoker, over med/high heat. Golden brown and delicious!

  24. Kirk says:

    I am so going to try this recipe. I’ve got an idea to make it work in my smoker, I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

  25. derek says:

    Thanks for the recipe. Just bought a 1.1 kg chicken. Hope it is not too oily as you suggested because it is ordinary chicken.
    I tried this in Han’s Room, a real classy Chinese restaurant in Mid Valley Mall, Kuala Lumpur last month. Never had anything like this. I know that I won’t be able to get this in New Zealand unless I try cooking this myself. So I am grateful for sharing this. Many , Many thanks.

    Hope I won’t damage the pot/non stick pan in the smoking process!!!!! And I don’t need to wait to have this on another trip to KL.

  26. derek says:

    Hi Jenyu,

    Nearly a disaster. The smoking ingredients nearly burnt when I left in the grill for too long. I think it won’t work in an electric grill. It will work in a purpose made fish smoker.

    Never mind, the chicken tasted good except it had no smokey flavour. In fact the chicken was pretty good and I just read the label saying it’s corn fed chicken.

    I will try again and hope it will get a better result and serve this for Easter Saturday dinner.

    Many thanks for putting out this recipe.


  27. jenyu says:

    derek – oh, darn! i hope the second attempt works out for you!

  28. Kirk says:

    I made your Tea Smoked Chicken and it was amazing. I wrote all about it in my blog and even gave you some plugs.

    Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  29. jenyu says:

    Kirk – thanks and what a great job you did!

  30. derek says:

    Hi Jenyu

    Finally succeeded in getting the chicken smoked!!! I used your ingredients but this smoking method from a you-tube demo ( His method of smoking was easier for me.

    But if you are using this smoking method do stick to 10 minutes religiously. Do not use your favourite pot as there may be permanent stains. Yes, open your windows or do this outside.

    As suggested by the video, try different flavours for smoking and use different meats.

    Thanks again.


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