Fish has been eaten by people for at least 40,000 years, since the known dawn of spearfishing, and for the same length of time we have been smoking fish.
Smoking is used now to bring out a particularly strong flavour in fresh fish and smoked salmon, in particular, has long been a delicacy. However, the history of smoking fish is a tale of serendipity, then of necessity and finally of embracing a unique flavour.
Where Did Smoked Meats Even Come From?
At some point in the old stone age (Between 3.3m years ago and roughly 10,000 BC) humanity began to create campsites and early more sturdy shelters.
Given that it would take until the Roman Empire to see the widespread use of industrial chimneys, many of these dwellings next to or on top of campfires would inevitably fill up with smoke.
The theory, therefore, is that this accident, in combination with the early storage of meat and fish by stringing it up to stop vermin from nibbling at it. As a result the meat dried out quicker, had a distinct flavour and lasted longer than it would have done otherwise.
Later methods involved putting the fish in salt or very salty brine before smoking it, which helped fish to last even longer outside of the water.
The oldest known man to have eaten fish is Tianyuan man, an east Asian man whose remains has been dated back over 40,000 years ago.
The reasons why fish were smoked vary; many early civilisations were built near bodies of water such as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, where strong coastal fishing traditions.
In other cases, they were a valuable trading commodity, to the point that one of the gates in Jerusalem is even called the Fish Gate due to a nearby fish market that specialised in fish that arrived from as far away as Egyptian Nile Perch.
Whilst smoking was not the only way to preserve fish, with Ancient China preferring live fish markets and the use of narezushi, a technique in Japan using fermented rice and salt to store fish for months at a time, most ancient and early modern cultures used some form of smoke preservation.
When Did It Stop Being A Necessity?
For thousands of years, the only way to store and transport fish was to smoke it, with the fridge only being devised in the 1750s and the first fridge for the home only appearing in 1913.
Between these two dates the entire world had been turned on its head by the industrial revolution, and many technological advances came about at the same time to eliminate the practical necessity of smoked food, such as faster transportation and the ability to keep meats cool at home.
This was not the end of smoked food, however, to the relief of kipper loving people across the world. Smoking became a far less intensive process, using smaller all-in-one devices such as the Torry Kiln.
Despite more efficient and advanced technologies, the general method and flavour remain the same as they were thousands of years ago.