Charcoal, an easy way to smoke food

That smoky taste is all the rage these days. Often associated with gourmet food like smoked salmon and smoked cheese, and fancy smoked ice cream, it is not something most people would knock out at home.

But why not? It is easy enough. I can vouch for this as I am a lazy cook and yet I have made smoked salmon and chicken using the Chinese tea-smoking method.

I love the fact that it does not require any special equipment or ingredients.

You can use any old wok and a smoking mix made of just three ingredients that are easily found in the home kitchen - raw rice, sugar and tea leaves.

But that is a story for some other day. Now I am thrilled to have found another super easy way to smoke food using a tiny piece of charcoal.

I discovered the Indian technique for smoking food while browsing Sapna Anand's New Indian Kitchen cookbook and asked her to share the technique.

Here's how simple it is:

Fire up a thumb-sized piece of coal directly on the gas stove. When it's glowing, place it in a small dish - traditionally a hollowed out onion is used - and place the food that you want smoked around it.

Drop a teaspoon of ghee on the coal and a rich, thick smoke will start to billow up instantly. Cover the whole thing with a lid to trap the smoke, wait for a few minutes and it's done.

Like tea-smoking, charcoal-smoking adds a smokey flavour to food without actually cooking it - unlike cooking on a hot grill or barbecue, which smokes and cooks the food at the same time - so you can use this method on cooked, as well as raw, food.

You can also add other flavours, such as cinnamon, to the smoke.

Smoked food is popular in northern India and its influence can be traced back to the golden Mughal period (1526-1707).

Known as "dhungar", smoking is used to flavour meat, paneer, dhal, raita and more. It is found in the Awadhi cuisine of the region which is famous for elaborate dishes such as briyanis, kormas, kebabs, roomali rotis and the dum pukht style of (slow) cooking.

"My earliest memories of smoked food was when my grandmother smoked lamb trotters over coals for a week to make paya, a nutritious bone soup," says Sapna, who hails from Goa, India and now comfortably ensconced in her Petaling Jaya home from where she conducts cooking classes.

"During the Mughal days, cooks would use oud or different types of wood to give food distinctive flavours.

"While the method is easy, beware that over exposure or using synthetic coal will leave an overpowering bitter taste."

She gives a few tips on smoking that she uses "to ensure that I have the perfectly smoked dish every single time":

- Use natural charcoal. Fast-igniting briquettes or other synthetic substitutes will ruin your dish.

- Use ghee or clarified butter.

- To flavour the smoke, add whole or powdered spice to the coal just before adding the ghee.

- Do not smoke the dish for more than 5 minutes.