While it is possible to make tinapa indoors using a stovetop smoker, my own experiments yielded fish that had the coppery color of tinapa but with a tender texture better suited to steamed fish. True tinapa is actually smoke-roasted with the combination of heavy smoke drenching it in woodsy flavors and indirect—yet intense—heat ensuring that it is firm and thoroughly cooked. For best results, use an outdoor grill or smoker.
- 1 quart water
- 1/4 cup coarse sea salt
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 fresh or dried bay leaf
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 3/4 pound fresh whole fish (preferably an oily species such as mackerel, sardines, round scad, trout, or milkfish), scaled and gutted
- 2 teaspoons calamansi juice or lime juice
- About 1/2 to 3/4 cup of wood chips, preferably mild-flavored, such as applewood
- Banana leaf (if using a frozen leaf, be sure to thaw it completely and wipe it dry)
Combine the water, sea salt, soy sauce, and brown sugar, and stir until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Divide the brine in half. Add the bay leaf, garlic and peppercorns to one half and set the other half aside.
Rinse and dry the fish, and then arrange them in a rectangular baking pan or casserole dish. Pour the half of the brine with the aromatics over the fish and let soak for two to six hours in the refrigerator. Flip the fish over once every hour if they’re not completely covered by the brine.
When the brining is complete, remove the fish from the brine and discard the used liquid. Briefly rinse the fish with cold water to remove any residue and set it aside. Pour the remaining half of the brine into a saucepan or a deep sauté pan, wide enough to accommodate the fish, and add the calamansi or lime juice; bring the mixture to a simmer. Submerge the fish in the simmering brine and poach for about two to three minutes (three to five minutes for larger fish) or until the eyes (if using whole fish) turn white. If the hot liquid does not cover the fish entirely, cook on one side for one minute (two minutes for larger fish) then carefully turn it over and cook the other side for another minute.
Very gently remove the fish from the brine using a slotted spoon or spider skimmer, being careful not to tear the skins, and place the fish on a cooling rack with a pan underneath to capture any dripping liquid. Leave the fish to dry in the open air for at least thirty minutes before smoking.
While the fish is drying, soak the wood chips for at least thirty minutes before draining them and placing them in an aluminum foil ‘nest.’ Fire up the coals and then allow the flames to die down before placing the nest of wood chips on the glowing coals. If using a gas grill, place the soaked wood chips in a small aluminum tray, cover the tray with foil, and poke a few holes on top before placing the tray on the grate.
When curls of smoke begin to rise from the wood chips, place a long piece of banana leaf on the grill and arrange the brined fish on top. Close the grill cover and vents and Smoke until the fish are cooked through and golden in color (don’t worry if the banana leaf shrivels up). This should take at least twenty minutes for small fish and at least thirty to forty-five minutes for larger fish.
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