Hanging out with Tel Aviv's expert fish smokers.
I was already unwrapping the smoked mackerel on the kitchen counter when I remembered I still needed to chill the vodka.
It’s 2 in the afternoon on a weekday, and I'm not a big drinker, but a glass of the cold stuff was recommended by my new friends at the fish market as the perfect accompaniment for their hand-smoked delicacies. Their process is a long and precise one, so the least I could do was savor their smoked fish in optimum conditions.
The mackerel was caught locally, and the place to get it is in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, at a specialty shop run by a pair I privately refer to as The Fish Smokers. Third-generation fishmongers, Shlomo and Avi have perfected the art of smoking fish.
While standing at their modest stall on the outskirts of the market, Shlomo slices a piece of smoked tuna and lets me pick it up from the cutting board. The smoky aroma is restrained, letting the deep-ocean tuna flavor shine through.
Every fish requires a different smoking technique, Shlomo tells me. The boneless smoked mackerel fillet is done at another facility on an open fire, completely exposed to the smoke, and demands a close watch. So close that Shlomo is by its side through the whole process, flipping the fish back and forth.
“Smoking fish is a whole world,” he says. "It is all about the balance of different kinds of sawdust, quantity and scattering. We sometimes make mistakes, but our mistakes never reach the stall." It is this attention to detail that makes Shlomo and Avi such remarkable craftsmen.
For the salmon, they use a combination of citrus and oak sawdust, smoking it whole at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for about six hours. Their salmon is gentle and buttery. It is a prime example of the difference between a hand-made product and one off the production line. Pre-packed smoked salmon from the supermarket has a strong and stubborn taste and a listless texture, the complete opposite of what I’ve tasted.
Back home, the vodka has had enough time to chill; I extract the now-cold vodka from the freezer, pour myself a small glass and am ready for my little tasting. I bring forth the smoked mackerel.
I ready myself for a strong smell, but there isn't one. The brothers' smoking process completely disarms the mackerel of what for some can be too fishy a taste. It is as if they peeled off the mackerel’s sting, removed its sea-thrust and left it bare with its natural flavor and texture, at once smoky and tender.
The smoked mackerel was delicious. My fingers smell of fish from the sea, my throat gritty from salt and alcohol. But I am happy and content. The Fish Smokers have delivered another triumph to my kitchen.
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