Aloha Tofu natto.
Aloha Tofu natto.

Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

After experimenting with a number of smokers I’ve picked up over the years, I realized that each has its own upsides and downsides. For instance, only one of the three smokers can cook a full cut of beef brisket, and only one does not need a fan to circulate the heated air.

However, each smoker requires constant monitoring to either refresh it with a new batch of charcoal or wood or to rotate the food for balanced cooking. I actually removed the fans from an old desktop computer and considered cutting holes in the smokers and installing the fans for even heat circulation. I was probably damaging the smoker in the process of being a DIY broke-can-ic.

Then I went online and started looking at those electric smokers that use wood pellets to produce smoke and that can be controlled to 25 degrees of the desired temperature. Just set the temperature and refill the hopper every so often with additional wood pellets as a fan rotates the smoke throughout the cooking chamber, almost like a convection oven.

Unfortunately, most mail-order firms do not ship large appliances to the 50th, even if you’re willing to pay for it. So I checked on what several local home improvement big box stores stock.

The most common model was the innovator, Traeger, which a few local stores carry. I almost bought a Traeger smoker that would fit a whole beef brisket in the smoking chamber. I did an internet search first to see which model had the best reviews. Traeger maintained a pretty constant smoking temperature, but it required that you occasionally remove the cooking grid, drainage pan and heat shield to vacuum the residual ash that formed during the smoking process. I would have had to also buy a shop vacuum, as I’m pretty sure the Mrs. wouldn’t want me to vacuum greasy, cooking ash with the Dyson.

Then I found the Camp Chef model. It had a convenient and easily removable cup to dispose of the ash. Of course, no local vendor sold Camp Chef and when I attempted to add them to my online cart with the local home improvement stores, I got the “can’t ship to AK, HI, Guam, Puerto Rico or Virgin Islands” warning.

One model had a stainless steel cover and a side propane burner for searing. I added it to my cart: no warning. Added my shipping address: still no shipping warning. Then I added the Mrs.’ credit card info (it was a birthday gift from her): again, no shipping warning. Then I actually placed the order — order confirmation! The pessimist in me expected to get an email later, stating it was an oversight. The only email I received was the order confirmation with the expected arrival date. YIPEE KA-YEH!

Natto-Mus. (Photos courtesy Ryan Tatsumoto)
Natto-Mus. (Photos courtesy Ryan Tatsumoto)

It arrived in excellent condition a week earlier than anticipated. After spending about 30 minutes assembling it, I got right to seasoning the smoker (one hour at 350 degrees with no food to burn off any residual oil), then tried smoking several large proteins, including our Thanksgiving turkey, pork sirloin roast (the same roast used in my Cubano sandwich), meatloaf, chickens and a whole beef brisket.

The biggest difference — other than not having to check the temperature and rotate the food every hour or so — was that the proteins do not get as smoky-black since the temperature can be set lower. It also doesn’t have as much of a smoky flavor, which also is good since smoke should just be another flavor element and not the dominant characteristic.

The 14-pound turkey and the pork sirloin roast were perfect after about three hours of cooking. The beef brisket was as tender as an earlier beef brisket I had mail-ordered from Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue. The meatloaf wasn’t as smoke-flavored as usual, but it was the only item that could have used a more pronounced smoke flavor. I could have cooked the chickens at a slightly higher temperature rather than at the 225 degrees, or for a slightly longer smoking time (two and a half hours).

Smoking isn’t only for animal proteins — smoked vegetables have an unlimited range of uses, as well. I often smoke Roma tomatoes, which I use for pizza or pasta sauces, or just chop and add to braising liquids for beef, pork and poultry. I slice the tomatoes lengthwise and place them, cut-side-up, and smoke them for an hour or so.

Once they take on that mahogany sheen, they’re ready to seed and the peels slide right off of the flesh. The same applications can be used with onions and garlic, and since I first sampled that lightly smoked daikon (turnip) at Vintage Cave’s sushi bar, I’ve smoked takuan, shoga (ginger) and rakkyo (shallots) that I’ve used in place of dill pickles in sandwiches or minced in my food processor with mayonnaise to make a Japanese style dip or sandwich spread.

Aren’t Smoked Foods Carcinogenic?

Smoking and charring can leave foods with benzo(a)pyrenes on the surface of your food, which is considered a probable carcinogen in the U.S. While benzo(a)pyrene is only a pro-carcinogen, needing further metabolism to benzo(a)pyrene diol epoxide, the final compound can start binding within your DNA, causing mutations leading to possible cancer formation.

One option is to consume smoked foods like cured meats in moderation, just as you would alcohol and saturated fats.

Or, take it a step further by enjoying your smoked proteins with coleslaw. Why coleslaw? The cabbage in coleslaw is rich in glucosinolates, which are associated with lower rates of certain cancers. The anthocyanins in red cabbage are natural antioxidants that could interfere with those oxidative reactions that produce benzo(a)pyrene diol epoxide. The main bonus to eating coleslaw with your smoked proteins is that it’s tasty and the perfect accompaniment to BBQ! Also, the vinegar in coleslaw cleanses the palate of the rich, fatty goodness in barbecue, refreshing it for another bite!

If you want to combine your protein and vegetables in one smoked dish, try my Asian take on that classic Middle Eastern chickpea-based spread — hummus. My version uses smoked natto and azuki beans, along with pickled shoga, pickled garlic and shiso. The slight smokiness mimics the smoky flavors found in that other classic Middle Eastern spread based on eggplant and baba ghanoush. I substitute the usual tahini, or sesame paste, with sesame oil. If you’re using the imported triple packets of frozen natto, just add the seasoning packets for extra flavor. For the first time, I’m also including this recipe in my February column for the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Imported frozen natto.
Imported frozen natto.


1 3-oz. tub of Aloha Tofu natto (for readers in the 50th), or imported frozen natto (for readers in the Bay Area) — spread on a wire strainer and smoked for 45 minutes

1 cup dried azuki beans, soaked overnight and then simmered for one hour

7 pickled garlic bulbs

2 tbsp. gari (light pink, pickled, thinly sliced ginger served with sushi)

1 tbsp. beni shoga (dark pink strips of pickled ginger) smoked for 30 minutes

1 tbsp. sesame oil

1 tbsp. shoyu

1 tbsp. Shiso Fumi furikake

Rice crackers

Garnishes: sliced pickled ginger (beni shoga), finely sliced fresh shiso leaves

Place garlic and gingers in a food processor and run until they are finely minced. Add the azuki and natto and run until it forms a creamy paste. Finally, add the sesame oil, shoyu and shiso furikake until well incorporated. Add more shoyu or shiso furikake if it requires more salt. Serve on the rice crackers garnished with beni shoga or fresh shiso.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here