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Small Birds, Big Tastes

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 5-6 and 30

We used to advise that these birds were known in China at least since the 6th century CE, probably even earlier because of the use of carrier pigeon use in early times. We now advise that pheasant, partridge, peacock, guinea fowl, and other small birds were known even earlier. Why do we have this change in thinking, because we know two tings about small birds. One is that they were used for bird flutes and the Chinese wrote about music with these flutes made of reed, bamboo, and other materials they attached to the tails of birds at least since the 6th century CE and that these flutes made music when they flew. The other includes items found or recorded in Han tombs

Thought to be descended from flying animals including doves which were then spoken of as Columdidae livia and are perhaps the same as or related to Streptopelia lrisoria found in Han tombs, some dating from the end of that dynasty, others during it, there is some material about the fact that China called these small flying creatures their 'rice birds.' What they really were, zoologically speaking, is still open to question.

There are reports of their being from Guangdong at least in the first century after Christ, sold on the streets of their cities and in Hong Kong then and since. One report does say they were yellow birds that men captured in nets and drowned quickly so they would keep up their weight and provide those who sold them with the most they could make from hawking these small birds.

To this day, the eggs of many of these tiny birds are sold in supermarkets, most raw though some are boiled and firm within their shells when peeled. Should folks wonder where to find them, look in the refrigerator section of their markets as they are popular at banquets and for dim sum, and not used otherwise in other ways.

Various sources we have read say to keep them two to four weeks when refrigerated, not longer when fresh, and for less time if hard-cooked. As to marinating them, these same sources and others suggest keeping them a day or two or three if leaving them soaking in a flavored brine, three or four times that long after they are smoked, but no longer.

The small birds discussed in this article might be called doves, pigeons, quail, and/or squab, names seemingly used interchangeably. Historians tell us they were domesticated and this might be from India to Malaysia, also from China, and in the early days. They report these animals are respected nay loved, because they care with whom they mate, are faithful to each other after doing so, live long lives, and remain with their spouse and their families until they die.

These small birds were and still are popular in both Northern and Southern China. They were and are often raised by Buddhist monks who are known to sell them for currency and/or give them to the poor. They report that monks believe the eggs of these small birds have aphrodisiac qualities, and that traditional practitioners and TCM doctors think them healing and strengthening. They report they suggest, even give them to women when pregnant and after childbirth. And they add, some called them ‘holy birds’ but for reasons we know not.

Below are a few recipes for preparing them. Keep in mind that chefs use them interchangeably, so never mind the names of these small birds. Most of those we speak about weigh less than a pound, many even half that amount. They are known to have little fat, be high in protein, have most of their meat above the leg area, not the leg itself because as it has many tendons. Most are mild in flavor, and best cooked over high heat and quickly, or slowly if larded with fat to avoid getting dry meat. Most are farm-raised, and pheasants are the largest among them; they can weigh more than two pounds, their breasts are adored.
Honeyed Quail
4 quail, cleaned and their center backbone removed
8 wooden skewers
2 star anise
2 two-inch cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoon fennel seeds
pinch ground cloves
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons dark or mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
3 scallions, white part only, minced
1 Tablespoon orange peel zest
1. Flatten the quail, and using wooden skewers, secure the wings to the birds.
2. Mix the star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, Chinese peppercorns, honey, minced scallions and garlic, and the honey and soy sauces. Put this mixture and the quail in a large bowl or a flat ceramic dish, and refrigerate overnight, turning once or twice.
3. Put them under a broiler or on a barbecue with a low flame or heat, and grill six minutes on the first side, four on the second side, then remove from the heat, put on a platter, drizzle with the zest, and serve.
Crisp Pigeon
4 baby pigeons, each cut in half, each center backbone removed and discarded or used another time for stock
4 cups chicken stock
5 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
6 Tablespoons Chinese sweet liquor
6 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
4 Tablespoons peanut oil or lard
1. Boil the pigeons for three minutes in the stock, minced ginger, sugar, liquor, and the soy sauce. Then remove them to a large flat ceramic dish and marinate them covered over night, turning a few times.
2. Remove the birds from the liquid and dry lightly with paper towels, then hang them or put on a wire rack for three hours.
3. Heat oil or lard to just below the smoke point, and fry the birds first on one side then the other for four minutes each, then remove to drain on paper towels. When all are fried on both sides, serve.
Tea-smoked Quail
5 fresh quail
1/4 cup Chinese brown sugar
1 Tablespoon ground Sichuan Peppercorns
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 scallion, minced finely
1 orange, zest the peel, and reserve the orange for another use
3 Tablespoons rice ground making rice flour
3 Tablespoons black tea leaves, ground
1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed and then ground
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1. Cut the quail in half, discarding the center back bone or reserving it for another use. Tie legs together, and bend the wing tips under the bird.
2. Mix the brown sugar, salt, scallion, orange zest, and the ground rice flour, tea leaves, and cinnamon, and coat the birds inside and out with this mixture. Then cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.
3. Outdoors, heat a smoker using any remaining sugar mixture in the bottom of the dry wok over a flame or covered on a barbecue for five to six minutes, turning the quail once or twice.
4. Poke a hole in the foil before removing it to release the steam and avoid scalding oneself. Then brush the birds with the sesame oil, and serve.
Fried Small Ostrich or Quail
1/2 pound boneless ostrich or quail breasts
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce, separated
2 Tablespoon ginger juice 2 Tablespoons sa cha or another barbecue sauce, separated
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1. Cut each bird in half, remove the center backbone and discard or use another time for stock, then rub each piece of meat with the baking soda.
2. Mix half the soy sauce, ginger juice, sa cha sauce, and the sugar in two small bowls and use one batch to marinate the birds for one hour.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or large fry pan, and fry the onion and the birds on each side about three or four minutes. Remove the onions to a serving dish, put the fried birds on top, and serve.
Pigeon, Nuts, Onions, and Peppers
1/2 pound pigeon breast, diced into one-inch cubes
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 rolls (about 60 slices) haw circles
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons pine or macadamia nuts, smashed
1 small green bell pepper, cut into one-inch cubes
1 small onion, diced into one-inch cubes
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
dash ground white pepper
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1. Mix pigeon, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and haw slices. Then let this rest for half an hour.
2. Heat oil in a wok or fry pan, and fry the nuts, onions, and green pepper for one minute, then add the salt, oyster sauce, the white pepper, and the wine and stir-fry for two minutes, then serve.
Baby Birds with Onions
1/2 pound baby bird breast and thigh meat
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons sa cha sauce
1 Tablespoon Shaoxing wine
4 Peking duck-like pancakes, shredded
1. Sliver the meat and mix it with the sugar, cornstarch, the soy sauce, and the ground white pepper and set this aside for fifteen minutes.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the meat for one minute before adding the sauce and the wine. Bring the heat to high, and stir-fry it another minute, add the shredded pancake pieces, then serve.
Mushrooms with Quail
3 Tablespoons belly pork, slivered or mashed
2 Scallions, minced fine
1 seeded chili pepper, minced
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons fermented bean paste
1 teaspoon each thin and dark soy sauces
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
10 small dried Chinese Mushrooms, soaked, their stems removed and reserved for another purpose
1 cup minced mixed thigh and breast quail meat
1. Mash belly pork and scallion pieces together.
2. Mix the chili peppers, garlic, bean paste, bouillon powder, both soy sauce, the sugar, and the quail meat; then stuff this mixture into the soaked and drained mushrooms.
3. Steam the stuffed mushrooms over boiling water for fifteen minutes, remove them from the steamer, then serve them.

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