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Birds of a Feather, In a Wok Together
Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 11
Last year, a friend showed me an article in the Buffalo News dated April 28, 1998, page pA3 about President Mitterrand’s last meal and asked about the ortolan mentioned in it. I then remembered a long time before, seeing a French movie in which people dined on the ortolan, a yellow-throated song bird. In that film, the birds were caught, each kept in its own cage, and then fattened for about a week. On the day of the feast, the birds were fed the finest of cognac, then cleaned, prepared, and served. Each diner either pulled a hood or draped a large napkin over his head while eating the dish. This was supposed to keep the fumes and aroma of the cognac together with the bird under the hood. Thus, the diner would saturate his or her senses with both cognac and ortolan while enjoying this dish.
The article pointed out the fact that because of this dish, the ortolan is on the vanishing list. Therefore, it is illegal to serve ortolan in France. However, since it was the President’s last wish, this dish was served to him--but in the utmost secrecy.
This article reminded me of a little bird that we used to eat in South China. We called it the Rice Flower Bird. Every year, around the end of May or in early June, the bird would come to South China and land on the fields to eat insects. The farmers would net them and sell them by the dozens; this helped them eke out additional sorely needed income.
For a week or two, hawkers would have those birds hanging by their feet on strings all over town as they called, “Rice Flower Birds!” People would buy a dozen or two at a time. Then, the season would be over. If we were lucky, we would eat them twice in a season; otherwise just once. It was a real treat!
There are two ways of preparing the Rice Flower Bird. Since they are already dead by the time the hawkers were selling them dangling by their feet, we had to act fast. Usually, we would cook up a pot of water, put the birds in a basin, and pour the scalding water over the whole group of birds at once. Then, feathers were plucked, insides removed and discarded, the birds cleaned, and the whole bird patted dry. For those who like crispy food, they would marinate the birds in sugar, soy sauce, grated fresh ginger, ground pepper, and wine. After about an hour, they would dust the birds with wheat flour, and deep fry them for eight minutes. Then, they would be served with cilantro as a garnish.
Another way is to stuff the birds with a piece of Chinese liver sausage or duck liver, marinate them with the same seasonings, and cook them in a saucepan for about twenty minutes. With the first method, one can eat the whole bird, bones, brains, and all. As for the second method, one usually has to spit out the bones.
Unfortunately, when I had the occasion to enjoy this bird, and I did, I was too young to know or care about the species. All I can remember now was that it was a little bird with yellow and dark feathers. Since I have never seen them alive, I can only take an educated guess as to what they may have been. I think that they must have been some kind of warbler that had the misfortune to migrate to South China each year. Recently, I heard that they are extinct, at least that’s what I was told a few years ago when I was asking about my favorite childhood dishes. Looking back, I truthfully regret that I took part in the demise of this species of our feathered friends.
Ms. Leung was born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong; she came to Boston and obtained a Master’s degree in Library Science and then got a doctorate in Education from SUNY Buffalo. Now she teaches at Amherst Central School, and is an editor for the teachers union newsletter. She promises to share more memories.