Walking by the frozen meat at my local Wing Yip, the radar pinged as I scanned over the usual offerings of frozen duck and mystery meat. French squab pigeons were available for the first time. There wasn’t really any hesitation I knew exactly what I wanted to cook. Tea smoked pigeon is one of my favourite dishes, a must eat whenever I go back to Hong Kong. A dish I pine for whenever I think about the food of Asia, which is often, in fact most of my waking hours.
I’ve tried making this with wood pigeon with little success, this dish demands the larger more succulent, bred to be eaten squab. The French know poultry, their squabs are probably tastier than the ones used in Hong Kong, which can be a little small and sinewy. Here’s the recipe, as always, don’t follow it slavishly. It’s more a guide on the techniques involved.
Poach squab in master stock “lo shui” 鹵水
Remove the giblets and set side. Blanch the squab in plain boiling water for one minute to remove the bloody impurities from the cavity. Rinse briefly with cold water.
Make a strong master stock to poach the squab. Your master stock is what sets you apart, there as so many variants of this general poaching medium. Each one starts with soy sauce and sugar, then all the other aromatics are to taste. Mine consists of light and dark soy, about 150g each, about 100g of yellow rock sugar, a splash of shaosing, ginger, scallions, aged mandarin peel, Sichuan pepper, star anise and diluted with water.
Bring the master stock to a boil and simmer the squab for 5 mins then turn the heat off. Let it sit in the stock for up to an hour to really soak up the aromatics. The squab meat should still be a little pink, if you prefer it cooked through simmer for longer *
Smoke the Squab
Line a wok with foil and spread an equal amount of uncooked Thai jasmine rice, sugar and tea leaves (about 60g each). Sprinkle dried rose petals on top of this smoking mixture. Heat the wok until the mixture starts to smoke. Lay the squab onto a rack lined with spring onion or baby leek, place the rack over the smoking mixture and put the wok lid on. Smoke the squab in the fragrant fug for 10 minutes. The heat should be adjusted to keep the smoke going but not to cook the squab much further.
Sizzle and Serve
So the squab is cooked and fragrant, but the skin is looking a bit wan. A classic Cantonese cooking technique is now to burnish the skin with hot oil. Place a hook through the head of the squab and hang it over a wok of hot oil. Ladle the hot oil over the skin until it looks radiant. Usually 5 or 6 ladles will do. Do not overdo it, the meat will overcook, this is why we don’t just simply deep fry it.
Carve up the squab pigeon and serve it traditionally with spiced sugar and salt. The giblets are particularly good cooked in master stock too. Deep fry the spring onion and leeks too, they pick up the smoke flavour nicely and contrasts the rich meat.
If you like you can be a bit fancy and compose a plate with it. Either way, it’s the best pigeon dish I know and if you can get over the triple cooking method then it may become yours too.
* You can reuse your master stock. After cooking the squab boil it back up, let it cool and fridge it in a clean jar. Next time you use it add some more of the aromatics. There are master stocks in Asia that are centuries old packed with umami.