Japan has a long, storied history with food-smoking, or kunsei. Like with most preservation methods, kunsei was born from necessity. Before refrigerator, you had three choices for stocking up on and preserving perishable foods — curing, pickling and smoking. You can trace the history of Japanese smoking to the 16th-century Ainu peoples of Northern Japan, a hunting-and-gathering society whose lasting contribution to the washoku food tradition was sacchep, a type of cured, air-dried and smoked salmon still prevalent today.
Smoking is still a dominant technique in Japanese cuisine, with katsuobushi, the dried and smoked tuna flakes commonly used to make dashi, being perhaps the most recognizable smoked preparation by most Westerners. Although katsuobushi isn’t usually made at home, many other Japanese smoked foods, such as kunsei tamago (smoked eggs), kunsei ikura (smoked salmon roe) and smoked duck breast are, and they’re all made indoors with a special type of donabe, the ibushi gin.
Smoking with an Ibushi Gin Donabe
An ibushi gin donabe serves a singular purpose: to smoke food. A heavy, earthenware vessel not unlike a Dutch oven in some ways, the ibushi gin has a recess in its lip, or the top edge of the vessel’s body, made for holding a small amount of water. When covered with its tight-fitting lid, the water helps create a seal that prevents smoke and heat from escaping.
Ibushi gins come in mini, small, medium and large sizes, with the medium size having a 10-cup volume. The ibushi gin setup is simple. It contains three tiers of grates to hold food while the bottom holds the smoking medium. In Japanese cuisine, the smoking medium commonly includes woodchips along with choice of aromatics. Green tea leaves, hoji-cha tea leaves, oolong tea leaves, rosemary, cinnamon, rice and sugar are among many to choose from. The rice and sugar serve to help the smoke adhere to the food. It also prevents the aromatics from burning too quickly.
To smoke with an ibushi gin, first line the bottom with aluminum foil and add about 7 to 10 grams (about 1/4 cup) of finely chopped wood chips along with a bit of rice and a sprinkle of sugar. Next, add the aromatics and arrange the foods on the grates and set it on the stove over high heat. Shrimp, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, salmon, chicken wings, thinly sliced meat, scallops and calamari are a few popular choices.
After the woodchips and aromatics start smoking, about 15 minutes or so, add water to the rim and set the lid on it. Turn off the heat and allow the food to smoke for 20 minutes. Thanks to the excellent heat retention, carryover cooking and the hot smoke will complete the cooking process.