Song Birds, Pigeons, Doves
In the mid-90s, during my first visit to Hà Nội, I woke early before dawn noticed something odd: there were no birds singing. I looked out of my hotel window but saw no birds. Well, I thought, maybe it’s the neighbourhood. At the end of the day, I asked my xe ôm driver why there appeared to be no birds in Hà Nội. “We ate them,” he said, matter-of-factly.
There are many foods that often are called “survival” foods and I suppose the birds of Việt Nam’s capital fell into that category, just as rats did in Paris during the Revolution and again during World War II. In various places during times of famine, people even ate tree bark and grass or anything else they could find. When I visited Hà Nội, Việt Nam had only recently emerged from the embargo imposed by the United States and during that twenty-year period, the country experienced extreme poverty and deprivation, when food, along with just about everything else, was scarce. So this explained why the Vietnamese ate the birds in the trees.
This is a story with a happy ending. Most people in Hà Nội now have enough to eat, the birds have returned, and my mornings there sound like mornings anywhere else. At the same time, Hà Nội is a city where you can order a delicious entrée of pigeon, dove, and a variety of songbirds in restaurants too numerous to count – birds that are frequently farm-raised. Birds have returned to the “legitimate” menu, leaving “survival” behind.
Over the millennia, “bird-catchers” supplied the gourmand and peasant alike with a wide variety of birds known not only for their splendour and song but also for their succulence. The ancient Greeks hunted wood pigeons, jackdaws, owls, and seagulls, importing flamingos from Africa, while the Romans stuffed wild boar with thrushes before roasting.
In sixteenth-century French, doves were cooked with other birds-curlews, wood pigeons and egrets among them – and, according to Larousse Gastronomique, “were more highly prized by gourmand than beef, veal, and pork.” Tits, lapwings, warblers, curlews, plovers, thrushes, robins, finches, sparrows, larks, and jays – all made wonderful meals across England and the European continent. Even the noisy crows were cherished in soups and stews. Of course, the most popular wild birds for eating have always been the larger game wild birds – the heron, the duck, the pheasant, the grouse, and among the smaller ones, the quail. But the songbirds, the ones that did not greet the Hà Nội, dawn a few years ago, have long been welcomed at mealtime and they are served in many parts of the world today.
In much of rural Southeast Asia, small rice birds known for their silky grey feathers, part of the sparrow family, are marinated grilled until crisp and eaten in one or two bites. Meanwhile in Spain and elsewhere along the Mediterranean, birds were still caught by small boys and sold, strung together in garlands, by black-clad old women at the entrance to villages.
Birds usually are caught in cages, or when they are moulting and unable to fly, baited with the grain. They are prepared in much the same way as other animals, though they are usually plucked and cooked with the skin on instead of being skinned, the feathers to come off just before cooking time and never before.
Of all species of songbirds, pigeons and doves may be the most commonly eaten, in part because they have existed in such great numbers over so much geography. Pigeon stew was enjoyed in ancient Egypt and in imperial Rome, chefs clipped the birds’ wings or broke their legs, then fattened them on chewed bread before cooking. During the reign of Louis XIV in French, it was fashionable to serve pigeon in a stew with green peas. While menus for ordinary households in eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Europe and America frequently called for “potted pigeon,” a sort of casserole, and “palpation or pupton of pigeons,” a kind of hot pate.
Today, cage-raised pigeons under a month old, called squabs, may be found in Chinese and Vietnamese poultry markets in many large cities, and commonly in Asian ones, frequently sold alive.
Pigeons raised on farms for restaurants are plumper and cleaner than street pigeons, of course. Some that I’ve eaten, in Bangkok and Sài Gòn, were fried to a delicious golden-brown, with enough fat sticking to the skin to keep the meat succulent. The birds were surprisingly meaty – I’ve had other small birds that seemed to be mostly frail skeletons in Phnom Penh and Đà Lạt – and flavourful enough to indicate they had not been subjected the kind of hormonal tampering that produces the large, bland “paper” chickens available in most supermarkets.
A final word about pigeons. The birds that proliferate in urban areas – called “street squab” in some cities – like the songbirds of post-war Hà Nội, is in the survival category.
Technically, there is little scientific difference between a pigeon and a dove, except that the dove generally is regarded as smaller. In fact, some say the rock dove, still thriving in parts of Europe, is the ancestor of all modern species of pigeon. There are several varieties of dove today, many taking their names from their appearance, such as the ringed, collared, and spotted doves, describing feather patterns and colouration. The mourning dove, so named for its plaintive cry, is the most plentiful game bird in North America today and is usually found on farmlands, cleaning up the grain left behind by modern harvesting machines.