Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Dinner: Hamam Ma'shi (stuffed pigeon)
As promised I'm slowly moving up the mashi scale and doing stuffed pigeon (hamam ma'shi). Careful though how you pronounce hamam, because the word hammam means bathroom. I did that once in a restaurant. I was so proud and confident that I knew what to order, only to be told I ordered a stuffed bathroom.
The idea of eating pigeon is not a new one. Egyptians have been eating them since about 3000 BC; even then pigeon was considered a delicacy amongst the pharaonic people. Today it is still viewed as a delicacy, though it's not your everyday kind of meat. It's the bird you cook when you want to impress guests.
This is no city rat-with-wings kind of pigeon. Egyptian pigeons are bred only for consumption. All throughout the country side, you can find these little towers that keep all the pigeons.
In the city, where there's a growing number of peasants coming for work, many still maintain a small holding area on roof tops for their pigeons. The pigeons themselves are much smaller than our nasty city ones. They also don't have much meat on them, but they have a very distinct flavour; almost like a whole bird made out of dark meat from a chicken.
Because they are quite small, people are usually given two per serving. A popular way to serve them is to stuff them as well (surprise, surprise). The stuffing is a mix of rice, onion, chicken/pigeon liver, and a little cinnamon. This is the stuffing found in turkey and chicken; it is the equivalent to the popular bread stuffing of North America.
I can't say I grew up eating pigeons. Pigeons are not bred here for consumption. Instead the same stuffing was applied to our thanksgiving turkey, and christmas turkey. The idea though of eating a pesky pigeon always seemed like a great idea to me, so when I finally made it to a restuarant in Egypt that served it; I was more than happy to delve into my beautiful pigeon. I have to admit, my first pigeon-eating experience was a little anti-climactic. It was just another chicken-like bird on my plate. But....it tasted wonderful! And it made for a great story when I came home: I ate a pigeon.
Most restaurants in Egypt will serve it splayed and grilled. I would suggest the stuffed one for more flavour and substance, and because it is roasted, it is not as dry.
For today, seeing as how getting a pigeon is a little hard in these parts, I opted to use cornish hens as a substitute. The better or closer substitute to a pigeon would be squab though, so if you can get your hands on that, even better.
Total preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Yield: 4 persons (if using cornish hen), 2 persons (if using squab)
2 cornish hens (or squabs)
1/2 a lemon
3/4 cup of rice
2 cups water
4-5 chicken livers
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 bay leaf
black pepper corns (optional)
1. Clean cornish hens using lemon and water -- make sure there is no package of innards left inside the bird.
2. Grate onion.
3. Cook rice in water for five minutes; this is to only soften the rice so that it cooks faster when it is in the oven.
4. Test the rice, if it is a little chewy but not fully cooked, then it is ready.
5. Strain rice and set aside.
6. Preheat oven to 350F.
7. Grate onion.
8. Chop up liver into small bite-size pieces.
9. Add liver and onions to rice.
10. Add cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste; this stuffing is usually generous with pepper
11. Wash your hands and stuff those birds.
12. Once the birds are full of stuffing, try to pack down as much as possible of the stuffing inside the bird with a spoon or your hand so that not much spills out while cooking.
13. If you are very ambitious, you can sew up the birds so nothing spills out at all, but this is not entirely necessary.
14. Place birds in a cooking dish and add just a bit of water to cover the bottom of the dish.
15. Add a bayleaf, a cut onion and some pepper or peppercorn to the water.
16. Cover with aluminum foil and put in oven for about 45 minutes.
17. When the stuffing is tender, uncover the birds and let them cook until they are golden.
Once the little birdies are done cooking, you can serve them with a side salad. Traditionally, you would have some taboulah, tahina, and some cucumber/tomato salad. My family always has white rice on the side as well. You can never have too much rice apparently.