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
2 onions
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.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Breakfast/Light Meal: Basturma b'il bayd (basturma with eggs)

I went home to visit my family the other weekend which always results in me coming back with bags of food from the Mid-East store. Specifically basturma. My parents are of the thinking if I was starving and had no money for any food, at least I could live off of cured meat and eggs.

It's a funny thing this basturma. In case you don't know it, it is a cured beef that is seasoned with a paste of cumin, garlic, paprika and fenugreek. It lingers in your system for days, and you can probably smell it sweating out of you. But it's kind of amazing. And it's the easiest thing to eat that fills you up for some time.

My parents, even through their differences, both adore this food. When you buy it, it's generally sliced already, and you can eat it as is with some bread, olives and cheese, or the real masterpiece is with scrambled eggs. That's generally how we all eat it in my family. When my parents or aunt comes to visit, chances are there's a tray of basturma so we can have a feast of a breakfast with it. Growing up, when no one could think of something easy to make for a packed lunch, the default sandwich was pita bread stuffed with slices of basturma. In theory, this is a great idea, apart from the fact that a kid's lunch will sit at room temperature for a few hours, only to reveal a potent, garliky, sandwich that other kids notice... I still am a little self-conscious bringing a basturma sandwich to work. No matter how many times you tightly wrap it, you can smell it from far away.

It's a food that is eaten more in Egypt than any other country outside of Armenia. It was the Armenians who brought basturma to the Middle East after the Turkish genocide of 1915. Many of them fled to Lebanon, and Egypt. Cured meat is not a new idea to many cultures, but in Armenia, it was a way of eating meat during the cold months of the winter, or when travelling long distances. One source explained how when travelling by horse a long distance, the hunk of meat was wrapped in the paste of spices and put in a satchel to cure throughout the voyage. According to some Armenian resources, basturma is in fact a Turkish name meaning 'pressed', as in a pressed meat. Basturma is not a pressed meat though since it is left to cure in open air. Instead, the original Armenian word for this meat, abouhkd, predates the Turkish one by a few thousand years, but it's the Turkish name, basturma, that is used.

But when the Armenians moved into these Middle Eastern countries, they became known for their basturma; or the heavy smell that came from the basturma. Apparently the older generation in Egypt made derogatory remarks about 'smelling an armenian' from far away, which is reference to the spices in the basturma. Funnily enough, it's a food that is now highly integrated into Egyptian cooking.

Today's recipe is super easy. It's our version of bacon and eggs for breakfast. The only difference is you eat it with only pita bread, not a fork, and it has flavour. It's a meal that many friends of mine were reluctant to try, but after one bite, were hooked. It's also one that you may want to make when you don't have anything important to do soon afterwards. The smell does linger a little. A friend of mine loves this so much, but only eats it on a Saturday before soccer practice so he can 'sweat out the basturma'.


Total Preparation and Cooking Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 persons


a handful of basturma
4 eggs
1 tablespoon butter/oil


1. Cut basturma into bite-size bits

2. Add butter/oil to a hot pan

3. Add basturma and cook for 30 second, or until the basturma starts to go a lighter colour

4. Crack eggs, and scramble with the basturma

5. Serve with warm pita

And that's it. Egypt's (and Armenia's) answer to bacon and eggs. But no need for a fork and knife. All you need is some pita bread for this dish.