Not Your Average Pigeon: In Search of an Egyptian Specialty
To try Maggie's recipe for Cairo-style grilled stuffed pigeon, click here.
I was told there was a great place for hamam mahshi (stuffed pigeon) somewhere on Falki Street in downtown Cairo, so off I went to find it. I was curious to see what was made with the pigeons one sees everywhere in Egypt: Not your usual urban vermin, these are handsome birds lovingly cared for in rooftop dovecotes.
And indeed: From two blocks away I could follow the trail of savory smoke directly to the Gomhoria Restaurant's grill.
Restaurants that only serve one thing almost always do it well. Gomhoria is no exception. You sit at one of the marble tables and a spread of small dishes immediately appears: a plate of tahini, tomato salad, extraordinarily delicious pickles. Moments later, the cheerful waiter presents you with one stuffed pigeon per person, along with a mug of spiced broth. There is no menu, and although you can also order a grilled kebab, that is clearly not what this place is about. All around you families cheerfully dig into their pigeons, picking tiny bones clean, one by one.
Now I confess I had never eaten a stuffed pigeon before, and didn't really know how to proceed. Its little pigeon head looking at me was sort of disconcerting, as were its little pigeon legs, daintily crossed to hold in the stuffing. Watching my fellow diners' technique out of the corner of my eye, I slit the pigeon open. The meat was flaky and tender, and sweet-smelling spiced freekeh poured out.
Freekeh is green wheat harvested before it dries and then smoked out of its chaff. It is a traditional cereal in much of the Middle East, widely used in rural cuisine: City people have historically considered rice more refined since it is imported, expensive, and white. I'm told some clever Australian has recently patented freekeh hoping to get rich marketing its remarkable nutritional properties. Yet another case of traditional knowledge hijacked for profit: Buy your freekeh from local Lebanese or Egyptian purveyors before patent law cracks down on them!
The freekeh used for stuffing these pigeons, the restaurant's proprietor proudly informed me later, is first soaked in cold water, then sautéed with finely chopped onions, pigeon livers, cinnamon, and black pepper. This mixture is then stuffed into the well-scrubbed cavity of the pigeon, the bird's legs are tied tightly, and the whole thing is stewed briefly in broth spiced with bay leaves and peppercorns. The pigeon is then fished out of the broth and placed on a smoky grill. The skin browns and tightens, the flesh picks up the smokiness, and the freekeh inside swells as it cooks, so that when served the pigeon is a taut little drum of flavor.
So impressed was I by this stuffed pigeon that I looked into the history a bit. It seems that pigeons have been stuffed with spiced freekeh since at least the days of the Abbasid court in Baghdad, maybe even since Pharaonic times. Once a delicacy for princes, this dish is now a casual weekday dinner for the groups of office workers and young families that crowd the Gomhoria Restaurant.
Founded nearly 50 years ago by Hussein Shalaby, the Gomhoria is now run by his two sons, Hassan and Ayman. They are glowingly proud of their establishment, and Hassan ushers me into the kitchen with a flourish so I can photograph the roasting pigeons. Much hilarity ensues as the waiters jostle each other, the grill-master gloats, and everyone preens and poses.
Cairo can seem like a hostile city: the enormity of it, the traffic. But tucked around any corner, in any narrow alley, there are little republics of good humor and good taste like the Gomhoria.