Chinese Fried Pigeon (Squab), A Hong Kong Favorite
Chinese Fried Pigeon (Zha Ge Zi, 炸鸽子) or Chinese Fried Squab (Zha Ru Ge, 炸乳鸽) is an incredibly special dish and a Hong Kong classic. It has disappeared from many US Cantonese restaurant menus in recent years, so this recipe aims to preserve this cooking method for future generations.
Dipping salt(a few pinches of five spice powder mixed with 1½ teaspoons salt)
Make sure the pigeon/squab are cleaned well, removing any internal organs. Squab in the US almost always come frozen, and oftentimes, they only come dressed on the outside, which means that you must cut a small opening near the tail in order to remove the remove the organs and clean the inside.
Take care to cut a small opening, and not to rip the skin when cleaning it. The best cut to make is a small horizontal cut 1 to 1½ inches wide between the tail and the bottom of the breast. It’s the same place where all poultry are cut and cleaned out. Once the cut is made, you’ll have to carefully use two fingers to pull out the entrails--including the heart, gizzard, liver, lungs and any glands that are attached to the cavity. It will take a few passes and lots of rinsing with cold water to get them cleaned out.
After the insides are thoroughly cleaned, use kitchen shears to clip off the talons and tuck the feet inside the cavity. You can also just cut off the claws (some old folks like to eat them with a cold beer) and just leave the legs. For a Chinese New Year bird, Chinese people tend to leave the legs, tail, and head intact. It is an old Chinese tradition to serve any bird with both the head and tail on for Chinese New Year dinner. It’s true also for the classic poached chicken, Cantonese white cut chicken, which is a required dish at all Cantonese Lunar New Year dinners!
In a medium-sized pot, add the ginger, garlic, scallions, sugar, salt, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, Chinese spice packet, water, and bring to a boil. The liquid should be quite salty––almost as salty as the sea, like when you cook pasta. Turn the heat down and let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes.
Next, carefully place the squab into the pot until they are fully submerged, and the cavities are filled with the hot liquid. Lift the squab out, emptying the liquid inside the cavity and return them back to the pot, again ensuring there are no air pockets in the cavity. This is the same method used in our classic Cantonese poached chicken; it ensures that there are no cold spots and that the poultry cooks evenly.
Reduce the heat to the lowest setting so the liquid is almost (but not actually) simmering. Let the squab cook for 30 minutes. Another easier method is to let the liquid simmer for 5 minutes with the squab, then turn off the heat completely, and leave the pot covered on the stove for another 25 minutes.
While the squab is cooking, prepare a large bowl of cold water. After the squab are done, remove them from the braising liquid, and soak them in the cold water, gently rubbing off any impurities from the skin that may have appeared from the cooking process. Let them cool completely in the water.
While the squab are cooling in the water, mix together the maltose, red vinegar, water, and Shaoxing wine until the maltose is dissolved. Maltose is not an easy ingredient to handle. It’s quite stiff and has the texture of taffy. Use your hand to remove the maltose from the measuring spoon and rub it into the water and vinegar mixture to help it dissolve.
Remove the squab from the water, gently shaking off any excess liquid. Roll the pigeon in the maltose vinegar mixture, using your hands to ensure all of the surface area gets coated. Do your best to keep the vinegar and maltose solution on the outside of the pigeon only. This maltose vinegar bath gives the skin a light coating that ensures crispy skin during the frying process.
Once the pigeons are thoroughly marinated, set aside, and air dry for a total of 2 hours. If you have a fan, point one at the birds to speed up the drying process. Turn the pigeons over after 1 hour and use a towel to wipe any liquid from the plate so it is dry. This bath and drying process is another measure to ensure that your traditional fried pigeon dish will have a crispy skin.
Now it’s time to fry the squab. Heat 6 cups of canola oil to 350 degrees F in a small wok. Use a thermometer to ensure the temperature is accurate. Usually, I recommend a small pot for deep frying to save oil, but in this case, it’s best to use a small round bottomed wok for frying.
Once your oil has come up to temperature, place one of the squab on the Chinese spider strainer breast down, and carefully lower it into the hot oil. At the same time, use your metal hoak or ladle to repeatedly spoon hot oil over the top of the pigeon. Make sure you pour hot oil over the head, neck, legs and tail. Try to angle the pigeon so the cavity opening is pointed down. Don’t pour oil into the cavity.
Repeat this process, turning the squab over if needed until your fried pigeon is a uniform amber color. How dark you want your fried pigeon is a personal preference. My experience eating this dish at restaurants is that they are generally a darker amber color. Repeat the process, one-by-one, for the rest of the squab.
The way to serve these fried pigeons is to cut off the head and place them at the head of the plate. We do the same thing for Cantonese Ginger Scallion Lobster. Cut off the claws and set them at the bottom of the plate opposite the heads. Next, use a chef’s knife or kitchen shears to cut the fried pigeon in half lengthwise and cut each half into a breast and leg quarter piece for a total of four pieces. Arrange the fried pigeon pieces on a large plate with freshly fried shrimp chips (you can quickly make these after you’ve finished frying the squab), lemon wedges and your five spice salt on the side.