I was thumbing through a recent issue of “Bon Appetit,” and a headline caught my eye: “The Anatomy of a Dish,” and below that line, “Roast pigeon with hay-infused yogurt.” The article spoke of the chef “honoring the ingredients’ context” and that “it freaks some people out, but then they’re rewarded with how delicious it is.”
Then I thought how everything old is new again at some point, how life trends — even in the culinary world — run in cycles. I had once served “nested” squab with near-disastrous results. As surely as pigeons rustle over the roof of the Imperial Dynasty now, squab was often a core element of gourmet dining at the restaurant. Cooked as a simpler fare, a squab course is key to one of my most precious early memories. Old memories blossomed fresh and new in my mind triggered by this headline.
Uncle Richard often served squab, and sometimes quail, as the fifth course of his special off the menu eight-course gourmet dinners. Squab is a fancy word for a young domestic pigeon. Unlike the birds that pollute our cities, these pigeons are specially bred and have long been considered delicacies, enjoyed by ancient emperors, kings, pharaohs and medieval royalty. Long before Uncle Richard’s gourmet dinners, squab was listed on the menus of my great-grandfathers noodle house, the Mee Jan Low, and my grandfather’s Chinese Pagoda.
Uncle Richard prepared his squab by moistening them with a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil and wine, then he coated each bird with water chestnut flour. He quickly pan-fried them before roasting them with consommé and wine.
When the poultry was ready, Uncle Richard plated the squab in a bowl filled with shredded deep fried taro root. After each bird was settled in its “nest,” it was glazed with a rich French chestnut and lichee nut sauce.
Years ago when I was working in the Imperial Dynasty restaurant, I was assigned to serve Uncle Richard’s gourmet dinner to a southern California wine and food society. There, 50 society members seated in the Imperial Dynasty’s downstairs “Curio Room.” Wine flowed; the diners had enjoyed salmon and filet mignon steak tartare, escargots and pheasant consommé. They had just finished their squab and were sipping on a Hanzell pinot noir as they awaited the next course and paired wine. All was running smoothly, and I was dancing in perfect rhythm. Then just as I reached to remove one gentleman’s plate, he leaned back and scooted his chair a fraction of an inch. The dance music for food service that had been playing so beautifully in my mind skipped a beat. The bowl in my hand skidded off of its saucer and the remains of the gentleman’s squab and nest cascaded down the backside of his chair.
Although he may have been rewarded with how delicious the course was before this occurred, I was freaking out. Thankfully, the majority of the spillage was limited to the floor; only a few sprigs of the nest clung to the gentleman’s suit jacket. But he wasn’t rattled by the accident. He shrugged it off as though he had been wearing a T-shirt and sweats. He waved off my profuse apologies and continued to chat with his friends. I have never forgotten his graciousness, nor my clumsiness.
Uncle Richard’s preparation of squab became memorable for me for many reasons, as you can see. But my paternal grandmother, Chan Shee Wing, had the most delicious preparation of squab I have ever tasted. She died when I was 3 and 1/2 years old, but I have a few strong memories of her. One of the most vivid and tactile memories I have of her is of sitting in her lap and gnawing on a squab drumstick. I remember savoring the meat and licking the juices off of my fingers as my grandmother stroked my hair.
The flavors of Uncle Richard’s squab contained many rich, savory notes, and I’m sure the chef who designed roast pigeon with hay infused yogurt created an enticing dish but I don’t believe either one could hold a candle to my grandmother’s recipe for squab. It wasn’t fancy pants, just simple deliciousness. The kind of deliciousness you are rewarded with when you are sitting with loved ones and sharing a meal cooked by loving hands, food cooked from the heart.
Squab is not readily available in local grocery stores. A good substitution is Cornish game hen. The following recipe makes enough cooking sauce for three to four game hens.
Mix the following ingredients together, bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes over a
very slow and low fire.
3 cups soy sauce
1 1/2 cups water
1/3 lb. rock sugar (or brown sugar)
8 whole star anise
1 stick cinnamon
Put Cornish game hens in the sauce mixture, bring to a boil again, and then turn heat down as low as possible. Simmer uncovered 35 - 45 minutes, turning the hens occasionally.
Remove game hens from sauce a soon as they are done. They may be eaten cold, or at room temperature but at serving time, heat and pour about 2 tablespoons of heated sauce over the hens.
This sauce may be may reused 3 more times. Bring to a boil, cool and refrigerate. The sauce may also be frozen
Gilding the lily:
My grandmother crisped up the skin just before serving. In a large saucepan, heat 1 quart of vegetable oil over high heat until oil temperature reaches 375 degrees. Carefully add game hens one at a time. Deep fry hens for a couple of minutes until lightly fried.
Gilding the gild: After frying the hens may be sprinkled with a mixture of toasted white ground pepper and salt.
Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-operator of the L.T. Sue Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.