Yesterday I was watching a show on the Food Network with Jeff Corwin. Jeff was wandering the rocky hillsides of Morocco exploring native cuisines that hadn’t changed in hundreds of years – cooking lamb in man made underground ovens sealed by mud, various tagine stews and of course, Pigeon Pie.
Two years ago, I traveled to Tangier, Morocco on a trip with some friends from a program in Sevilla, Spain. We stopped at a restaurant on our way to a mosque on the Northern coast of Africa. It had been a tipsy ferry ride over from Gibraltar, but our stomachs grumbled in anticipation of the meal ahead.
I sat on the left side of the restaurant, positioned in a perfect view of the Moroccan coastline outside. It was a windy and ugly day but the atmosphere was bubbly and warm. We were eager to begin our 6-day excursion, and the servers bussled around us placing large loaves of bread and bottled waters on the tables.
A large, round phyllo dough looking thing was soon plopped on the plate in front of me. I quickly identified that it was dusted with powdered sugar and rows of cinnamon but along with my companions, I joined in on the mystery of what was on the inside. Was it chicken? Shredded beef? It was too sweet to be pork, or lamb, and it probably wasn’t beef. It was light in color and mixed with an assortment of traditional Moroccan staples – almonds and yellow raisins as well as spices like cumin and saffron (an unaffordable spice here in the US, it is abundant in Morocco and the spice of choice for many of their dishes). It was the best thing I have ever eaten.
I concluded that it was indeed chicken, and devoured the entire thing. If this was just the first of our Moroccan meals, I couldn’t imagine what was next. Throughout the days that followed, we ate a Berber feast (a native people that has occupied the area for over 4,000 years), learned how to make Moroccan flatbread (“Khobz” in Arabic), and sipped sweet mint tea. But it was the Pigeon Pie that lingered on my mind.
It wasn’t until yesterday that I discovered it wasn’t chicken layered inside that flaky dough. It was pigeon. Why was it that I hadn’t considered that the name corresponded with the dish? Pigeon Pie is made with pigeon meat…duh.
In the United States, pigeon meat has gone largely unnoticed. We figure they carry diseases and are overall, dirty, pesky creatures. Or maybe, we have considered them and because there is little meat to be taken from one bird, it would require a large number to be a wise restaurant choice. Yet in other parts of the world, pigeon is a common ingredient. Its unique flavor and texture are reminiscent of chicken, but it is sweeter, less chewy and light – far away from the gamy duck, or tough beef that we cook on a regular basis.
I’m not saying today’s chefs should reconsider replacing steak tips or roast chicken on the menu. But I’d be pleasantly surprised if pigeon showed up in the near future.
(P.S. I recognize pigeon is commonly referred to as “squab” on many fine dining menus. I am merely suggesting that in order to avoid confusing the average consumer – who might not recognize squab as a nickname for pigeon – that these definitions might deserve their own special categories. Either that or street pigeons in Morocco do not spend their time scouring public streets and parks.)