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‘Tea-Smoked’ Turkey

Thanksgiving may be an American holiday, but the foods that define it are definitely privy to regional and cultural interpretation. For many years, Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house consisted of a mashup of classic menu items combined with Chinese dishes that my mom would make or that our relatives would bring over. It was never clearly one way or the other: It was always both.

Next to the roast turkey, there would either be a roast duck, soy sauce chicken or drunken chicken (didn’t matter that it was Thanksgiving, and poultry was obviously covered). Sometimes, we’d also have a brown sugar-glazed ham, but someone would bring roast pork anyway. Our vegetables of choice were rarely green beans: Instead, there was bok choy or gai lan. In proximity to the stuffing and mashed potatoes would be — you guessed it — a bowl of steamed rice. The cranberry sauce almost always went untouched, as few of our guests were ever adventurous enough to try it. At the end of the meal, along with the requisite pumpkin pie, we drank oolong tea and had fresh fruit (often Asian pears).

I’m pretty sure my family’s early experiences with the holiday aren’t unlike those of many other immigrant families. Thanksgiving was a time for everyone to get together around a celebratory meal, so who cared whether some of the items on the table might have seemed incongruous with the others.

This year, I decided to come up with an alternative to the typical roast turkey that could also work other times of the year. My inspiration: tea-smoked duck, but without all the complicated steps and work.

Instead of a whole turkey, I worked with a bone-in, skin-on turkey breast half, which makes more sense for smaller gatherings (the recipe is easily doubled for a whole breast) or for those who don’t like to have a ton of leftovers. To infuse the bird with deep, smoky notes without actually cooking it over smoldering tea leaves, I utilized one of my favorite shortcuts: a potent brine. Flavored primarily with Lapsang Souchang, a black tea with an intensely smoky profile, the brine also contained the requisite salt and sugar components, as well as soy sauce, star anise, and black and Sichuan peppercorns.

To further enhance the sweet-smoky flavors of this turkey, I added a honey-soy-five-spice glaze, brushed onto the skin during the last half hour of roasting. Reminiscent of a traditional Chinese banquet dish, but adapted to use a traditional Thanksgiving bird, I’m pretty sure this smoky tea-brined turkey will be a hit in our household. I’ll just have to make sure to tell my aunts to bring something else instead of an extra chicken or duck, like, say, ginger-scallion crab.

Smoky Tea-Brined Turkey

Serves 4 to 6

To adapt this recipe for use with a whole 6- to 7-pound turkey breast, simply double the recipe for the brine as well as the glaze.


8 cups water
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup soy sauce
1 star anise
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
¼ cup Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1 bone-in skin-on turkey breast half, about 3 pounds
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar


  1. In a 4-quart saucepot, heat the water, salt, soy sauce, star anise, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns and brown sugar over high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the tea leaves. Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Place the turkey breast in a large bowl or pot and pour the brine on top. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.
  3. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a wire cooling rack on top. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse thoroughly under cool water. Discard brine. Pat turkey dry with paper towels and place on the prepared baking sheet, skin-side up.
  4. Roast the turkey 45 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze: Whisk together the honey, five-spice powder, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar in a small bowl until smooth. After the turkey has roasted 45 minutes, brush it with the glaze mixture. Continue roasting until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the turkey registers 165 F, about 30 minutes longer, brushing the turkey every 10 minutes and tenting the turkey loosely with foil if it begins looking too dark.
  6. Transfer turkey breast to a cutting board and tent loosely with foil. Let rest 20 minutes before carving.

Zester Daily contributor Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.

Photo: Applying the honey-soy-five-spice glaze. Credit: Sandra Wu

Zester Daily contributor Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma's corporate headquarters.