Chinese Recipes for an 'American' Bird: Pheasant

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Holly A. Heyser


America is a land of immigrants, and that includes our most popular game bird, the pheasant. Yes, it's true. Our beloved Phasianus colchicus is not native to North America. It's not even a long-time resident, biologically speaking. No, our pheasants arrived on a boat from China in 1881—oddly, just about the same time that people from China were faced with a ban on immigrating here imposed by our federal government. Funny how history works.

American hunters have Owen Nickerson Denny to thank for bringing us the pheasant. Denny was our consul-general in Shanghai in 1881, and he happened to be an avid hunter. Apparently pheasants were running around all over the countryside outside the city, and were often caught and sold at the local markets.

The pheasant itself was incredibly tender and far more flavorful than any chicken, and it danced well with the crunchy peanuts, warm garlic slivers and ever-so-slightly vinegary sauce.

Denny began buying them, both for dinner and to have around his compound. "These birds are delicious eating and very game and will furnish fine sport," he wrote a friend, according to Victoria Holmgren's book Chinese Pheasants: Oregon Pioneers.

Long story short, Denny shipped a bunch of pheasants back to his home in Oregon's Willamette Valley. He supplemented that first batch with more birds in 1882 and 1884. Pheasants, it seems, loved their new country. When Oregon opened its first hunting season on them in 1892, hunters reportedly shot 50,000 of the birds! Guess there were no coyotes in Oregon at the time.

Word spread, and so did the pheasant. By 1904, just 23 years after Denny first planted pheasants in Oregon, the famed outdoor writer Edwyn Sandys could write that "the one imported bird now firmly established and entitled to a place among American upland game is the pheasant."

Back to China. Now I don't speak and can't read Chinese, but I have been able to determine that pheasant has been on the menu in China more or less forever. So far as I can tell, pheasant has been—and still is—freely used in many of the ancient chicken recipes that are still made today. Anyone out there read Chinese and can help me with my research? I'm dying to learn more about this...

In the meantime, I decided to play with a couple classic Chinese chicken dishes and adapt them for pheasant. I find that most hunters and wild game cooks restrict themselves too much to the cooking of America and Europe, myself included. Yet the whole world hunts, so there is a planet full of inspiration out there for some truly unique and exotic wild game recipes. Why not start with China, a cuisine familiar to us?

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Holly A. Heyser

This is Dong'an pheasant, an interesting hybrid braise/stir fry that's one of the signature dishes of Hunan. It uses whole pheasants (or chickens) that are gently simmered in water and spices to make a broth. The meat is pulled off the bone, shredded, and stir-fried with the typical Chinese trio of scallions, ginger, and garlic. I added shiitake mushrooms to the mix to liven things up. The broth then forms the basis of the sauce, which also includes Shaoxing rice wine and Chinese black vinegar.

It is a great dish, clean and bright and with a taste closer to the authentic Chinese restaurant cooking I've enjoyed in San Francisco and New York than anything I'd ever been able to replicate at home before.

Much of this success is due to Fuchsia Dunlop. I have both her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which covers Hunan cooking, as well as her Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. They are excellent introductions to Chinese regional cooking and are surprisingly easy to adapt to the wild game and fish I bring home all the time—the Sichuan book even has recipes for wild duck and rabbit. (If "Sichuan" appears unfamiliar to you, it is apparently the more modern way of spelling "Szechwan." Google it.)

It was in Dunlop's Sichuan book where I found my absolute favorite Chinese dish: Kung Pao chicken. I was vaguely aware that Kung Pao chicken came from Sichuan because of all those dried chiles in it. But I really didn't care where it came from, so long as my plate was filled with tender chunks of chicken, fiery chiles, and lots and lots of peanuts. Anyone who has ever eaten cheap, steam-table Chinese has eaten Kung Pao. It's an awesome comfort food.

Dunlop's rendition of it, obviously far more authentic than what I get on K Street here in Sacramento, remains true to the Americanized dish I know and love—but kicks everything up several notches in the flavor department. I adapted her recipe to make my version of Kung Pao Pheasant by doubling the amount of garlic and increasing the amount of sauce; I like my Chinese dishes saucy.

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Holly A. Heyser

Holly and I ate this last night and oh man, was it good! Spicy as hell with 10 dried chiles, but I really enjoy the flavor of dried chiles fried crispy. In lard. Yes folks, Dunlop says the Chinese cook in lard all the time—I'm sold. The pheasant itself was incredibly tender and far more flavorful than any chicken, and it danced well with the crunchy peanuts, warm garlic slivers and ever-so-slightly vinegary sauce.

Now when you read my recipes for Dong'an Pheasant and Kung Pao Pheasant, you will notice that I use real Chinese ingredients: Sichuan peppercorns, Shaoxing rice wine, Chinese black vinegar, star anise, potato starch. All are easily available—if you have an Asian market near you. But not everyone does. These dishes are so good it's worth ordering the ingredients online, but if you want to substitute, try this: dry sherry for Shaoxing wine, rice vinegar for Chinese black vinegar, fennel seed for star anise, corn starch for potato starch. There is no substitute for Sichuan peppercorn.

The world is too big to confine ourselves to the cooking of one or two continents. Hunters out there, do you make any non-Western wild game dishes? And world travelers out there: Tell me about any wild game dishes you've eaten abroad. Anything memorable?

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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