Ambrosial Abalone and Pigeon Soup

Banquets are, by definition, special occasions. To me, as a child, they represented good times, great food, special treats, lots of joyful people, games, tipsy men and much hilarity. Everyone looked forward to these family gatherings and anticipated the procession of platters of food that we never experienced at home: abalone and pigeon soup never emerged from my mother’s kitchen to serve as the family dinner!

Banquets meant extraordinary things, like fizzy lemonade and ginger ale for the children, cognac and whisky for the adults. And the oohs and aahs as the food was paraded to the table. The adults would comment on each dish – there were at least ten courses – comparing it with the one they had enjoyed in the homeland, relating anecdotes and making judgements about the taste and significance of the various foods.

If a dish was deemed wanting, the blame was always placed on the inadequacy of American supplies. People accepted this deficiency stoically and proceeded to devour every scrap. On the other hand, any exceptionally good dish was a tribute to the genius of the cook, who had to overcome the Western lack of interest in good food and proper ingredients.

After several hours of eating and drinking, adults and children would play various games of skill and chance, jovially and with much horseplay. I remember thinking that it was strange but nice to see these normally quite restrained and quiet adults having so much fun.

Ambrosial abalone and pigeon soup is a dish I especially remember from these family banquets. Abalone and pigeon blended together make a broth fit indeed for the gods. It is rich in flavour, and the chewy texture of the abalone bits provides just the right body to the soup. The long, gentle steaming process coaxes the flavours from each ingredient. This dish is easy to make: all it needs is tender loving care, patience and some time.

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  • 2 small wood pigeons
  • 1 × 350 g (12 oz) can abalone
  • 1 litre ( pints) Chinese Chicken Stock or store-bought fresh stock
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Blanch the pigeons for 5 minutes in a large pot of boiling water. Remove and rinse under cold running water. Cut the pigeons in half.

Cut the abalone across into 1 cm (½ in) slices.

Bring the chicken stock to the boil in a large pot. Pour the stock into a heatproof soup tureen and add the rest of the ingredients.

Cover the tureen and set it on a rack inside a large steamer or an old turkey roasting tin. (I find the turkey roasting tin perfect for this technique.) Pour 5 cm (2 in) of water into the steamer. Place the cover on the steamer and keep tightly covered. You now have a tureen within a steamer. Steam continuously for 3 hours, replenishing the hot water from time to time as necessary.

When the soup is done, skim off any excess fat and adjust the seasoning with salt to taste. Cut the pigeons into small pieces, discarding the bones or returning them to the soup. Serve at once, distributing equal amounts of abalone and bits of pigeon among the soup bowls.