THERE IS A REAL magic to smoke. Humans are instinctively drawn to the heady, pungent aroma of the escaping soul of fire, the mastery of which fundamentally separates us from our animal brethren. We congregate around campfires, holding our chilly hands out toward the radiant light like acolytes praying to a primeval god, the smoke permeating our clothes and hair, likely an inextricable part of the prehistoric aroma of humans. Perfumed smoke is wafted through cathedrals or temples from swinging censers, and trickles in slow tendrils from the smoldering tips of incense sticks, like an allegory for the divine, unseen but felt, sensed but intangible, a substance that coats your body, but you cannot hold it in your hands.
You can trap it in other ways, however. Smoked food and smoke-preserved food get an extra bump of addictive Maillard flavor from carbonated wood particles. You also can literally smoke things such as pipes and cigarettes. Breathing that pungent haze into your actual lungs is, admittedly, a particularly intimate way to commune with that elusive element, but I leave it up to you to decide whether the rebellious dash of breathing fire is worth the considerable health drawbacks.
In my opinion, the purest way to capture and experience smoke, without the delicious but distracting intermediary of food, the hacking emphysema brought on by smoking or the danger of ruining your clothes, is to drink Lapsang Souchong tea.
Lapsang Souchong tea is, I think, the closest you can get to the experience of drinking an actual campfire. Smoky without actually being smoke, the aroma does not scrape against the nostrils and lungs or bring on a fit of coughing. Like peaty whiskey or a fine cigar, it evokes cozy evenings by the fire, wood-and-leather gentlemen’s clubs or summertime camping trips where everyone ends up smelling like campfire together, so no one notices anymore.
Lapsang Souchong is a black tea, comprising leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant that have been oxidized by being allowed to first wither in the open air for about 10 hours, then “rolled” or massaged to break the cell walls, and then allowed to rest again until they turn brown. At that point, for regular black tea, leaves usually are kiln-dried or roasted. But to produce Lapsang Souchong, the withered, oxidized leaves are then dried over a smoky pinewood fire, resulting in a smooth, almost savory brew.
There are legitimate concerns that smoked foods (and smoked tea), which contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as a result of the smoking process, are to some degree carcinogenic themselves, which is why many varieties of Lapsang Souchong are banned in parts of Europe. Some manufacturers use methods such as filters and roasting to produce teas with fewer PAHs in their Lapsang Souchong, and some are more punctilious than others about the wood they use to produce said smoke. So buyer beware, but in tea, as with anything else, you get what you pay for.
The notion of drinking tea itself is ancient, dating from roughly 3000 B.C. Tea originally was consumed green in China, and continued to be so for centuries until, by most accounts, the 1600s. Thanks to widespread adoption by Europeans, black tea — as in regular oxidized, kiln-dried black tea — is one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, along with coffee and, one supposes, Coca-Cola. Most of this commodity tea — your bags of Lipton, English Breakfast, etc. — actually is made from teas such as Assam, grown in the Indian subcontinent, while the majority of Chinese tea still is consumed as green tea. (I say majority; there are of course many Chinese black or “red” teas, like Keemun, that pop up in popular blends.)
But while the true origins of black tea can be viewed only hazily through the mists of time, it is largely believed that Lapsang Souchong, produced in China, is actually the original black tea. The origin story usually involves either a village whose tea production is interrupted by an approaching army, or a village fleeing an invading army — regardless of the details, via some combination of accident and contingency, the freshly picked tea leaves were allowed to dry without being boiled first, as with green tea, resulting in oxidation.
Then, either to speed up the drying process (see various army-related problems above) or to facilitate transport without spoilage for trade with Europeans, the leaves were then dried over the smoke of a pine fire. Sometimes this is said to have happened during the later Ming Dynasty, sometimes the early Qing (roughly the 1600s, in either case), and it is generally considered to have occurred in the Wuyi Mountains in the Fujian province, an area known for its tea production (and for being a UNESCO World Heritage site).
This tea then was sold to the Dutch, who liked this pungent, campfire-scented brew so much, they came back for more, followed by the British. It rather surprises me that Lapsang Souchong was invented so late in the human story, given how elemental its production methods are. Had it been invented earlier, it would have been, I’m sure, considered a conduit to the divine.
One wonders why the method of smoking the tea eventually was superseded by kiln or air drying; possibly people preferred the “cleaner” taste of unsmoked tea (as happened with beer in Europe); possibly the smoke-drying process was fiddly and messy to do at scale. Either way, Lapsang Souchong is now a niche product (sometimes overpowering to those used to regular black tea), a drink that can described as “piney,” “meaty” or even “bacon-y,” depending on the variety.
To brew, add the appropriate weight of tea (loose is different from bagged, and every brand is a bit different, so check the package) to boiling water (this sounds obvious, but it’s not — many teas are best prepared with cooler water, and some even claim this is true of Lapsang Souchong), and steep for, generally, 2½ to 3 minutes.
Lapsang Souchong is typically not bitter at all, so it doesn’t really require sweetener, but I think a little creamer is sometimes nice. Lapsang Souchong is also a lovely, subtle way to add smoked flavor to food. You can use it to flavor chicken or pork or, as a chef friend of mine did with great success, ice cream, trapping that oh-so-elusive spirit of fire in a frozen concoction you can nibble out of a cone on a hot summer night.