3. THE WORKING OF THE CHORKOR SMOKER
3.1 Preparing the fish before smoking
Smoking is a preservation method which gives the fish a taste that is highly appreciated in Africa. Smoking does not upgrade the quality of a spoilt product. The fresher the fish, the better its taste and preservation. By the smell and texture of a smoked fish you can tell whether the fish was fresh enough before smoking. Therefore you should forbid the common practice which consists in smoking unsold fish.
For longer preservation, it is recommended to empty and clean up medium size and bigger species. Intestinal zones are a potential source of microbial infection even after smoking. If you are to smoke a lot of fish, start by cleaning up bigger species because they are more prone to spoilage.
The cleaning up job requires the following materials:
- A basket or a bucket to be used as a refuse bin
- A well sharpened knife
- A small board
- Enough clean water (fresh or salt)
- A clean basket or basin
If you are to smoke species of fish with large scales, first remove the scales. To do this, lay the fish on the board; remove the scales on the two sides from the tail to the head with the blunt edge of your knife. Avoid using an overly sharp knife; it can damage the flesh.
After scaling, use the sharp edge of the knife to empty the fish. The belly is opened exposing the intestines. In big species a large blood-clot adheres to the backbone. It must be also removed; otherwise, it may decay and spoil the product even after smoking.
You should immediately proceed to wash the fish either with fresh or sea water as long as it is clean water. Washing water should be renewed as often as possible. Otherwise it can become a source of microbial infection.
Medium size species:
These species must be scaled, emptied, and rid of their gills and fins according to the size. They are sliced open from the back ending in a butterfly-like position. Thanks to this method, smoking time is considerably reduced, for dehydration and impregnation of smoke are faster. Then the fish will be clean before smoking.
Finally, small species can be smoked whole; you only have to wash them with clean water before laying them on the trays.
3.2 Using the trays
After washing, the fish can be laid on the smoking trays. If you are using the tray for the first time, it is advisable to smear it with oil (palm or coconut oil).
Fishes are arranged in various trays according to size and species (not tightly squeezed).
However, make sure that the trays are kept at a good distance from the soil to prevent the fishes from getting dirty again.
Fishes laid in the trays should drain for about 30 minutes. Trays can not be superposed during this period. In order to facilitate draining, fishes spread like butterflies should have their backs turned up against sunlight. After draining, they should be laid again flat on their backs.
As the fishes are ready we can now light up the smoker.
How to light up the smoker and when to set the trays.
Check the fireplace to remove ashes before lighting up. Otherwise the fish will be ash-dirty. If the fireplace is cleared of ash, you will simply have to put in medium size dry wood together with brush-wood to facilitate lighting.
Should you light the smoker with kerosene, let the initial thick dark smoke disperse before placing the trays. It might quickly darken the fish which, as a result, can no longer take on a colour.
You can proceed to place the trays when the fire gets mild and the smoke transparent.
In laying the trays on each section of the smoker, follow this sequence
- Trays containing bigger species should be laid first
- Then put those with medium size in the middle
- And trays containing smaller species at the top
To keep track of the order of trays during their rotation, you can mark them from the bottom to the top with a piece of chalk or charcoal.
- Do not lay more than ten trays on each section of the smoker. Lay them in such a way that they fit into each other so this will minimize heat loss through the sides.
3.3. Smoking stages
Once the trays are laid, watch the fire to prevent it from overburning during the first two hours. Hence, the fish will dehydrate slowly with the great advantage of providing you with a firm flesh. This is the period of pre-drying where the duration may vary from one to two hours according to species.
Before moving to the following stage, i.e., cooking, you need to:
- Get the trays off the smoker
- Leave to cool for about 20 minutes, during which trays should be kept at a good distance from the ground so that the fish does not get dirty.
- Turn over the fish.
Thanks to this operation, the fish will not stick to the wire-netting. As a result, risks of breakage are few.
Now you need to:
- Cover the last tray with, for example, half a sheet of plywood that can be overlain with bricks.
- Step up to the fire by putting in more fuel; however the fire should not be stepped up out of hand.
From this stage, it is essential that the trays are rotated every hour. Depending on the intensity of the fire, three rotations or more are necessary during the stage of cooking.
On each rotation, allow a cooling time of 10 to 20 minutes before turning over the fish on the trays that should always be kept at a good distance from the soil.
If when turning over it occurs that the fish is stuck to the wire-netting, proceed this way:
- Hold it with your right hand without pulling
- Press hard with the index of your second hand on the wire-netting
After rotation and turning over lay the trays back on the smoker. Here it is not compulsory to reverse the order because you should always bear in mind that the trays containing smaller species should not be close to a strong fire.
On each permutation of trays, check the degree of dehydration through the vacuum which gradually develops in the trays because the fish will take less space with smoking. You can also try its weight; it gets lighter. The length of this second phase depends on the size of fish and may vary from 3 to 6 hours.
Then you can move directly on the following day, to the third stage, that of smoke-drying.
During this phase, the content of several trays can be transferred on to a single tray; the emptied trays can be filled up again with fresh fish if there are still some to smoke. Lay back the trays on the smoker.
At this juncture, you need more smoke than fire. Smoke contains a lot of particles which help in a good preservation of the fish. In addition, it gives a nice colour (brownish yellow) to the fish. In order to make smoke, you can use pieces of sugar cane or coconut waste. You can equally use humid sawdust; dry sawdust may soil the fish.
Use a piece of sheet iron or plywood as a wicket to smother the fire and make smoke. You can proceed to further dry it and for this you will need a mild fire. The latter can be obtained by putting a big slow-burning fire-log in the smoker.
Check from time to time the weight of the fish: pick up a sample and feel its weight. A well smoked fish should weigh about 25 to 30% of initial weight. It should be light and have a nice colour (especially brownish yellow). Furthermore a well smoked fish should not present any sign of burning.
After these observations, leave the fire to go out by itself, cooling will follow.
On the whole, the smoking time with the chorkor smoker varies from 5 hours to 2 days depending on type of fish, wood and experience of the operator.
3.4. Maintenance of smoker and trays
After a long period of use and with heat, the clay smoker can start showing cracks that will cause heat losses; in this case, mend the cracks with clay and leave to dry.
To avoid corrosion, rub the wire-netting with vegetable oil periodically. Before every use clean up with a metal brush or a very clean broom.
Finally, the trays should not be exposed to rain; it might shorten their life.