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?
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.