Double-steamed Pigeon and Ham Soup

Once my mother was awarded a small amount of money in back pay, and she immediately splurged by purchasing some expensive food items. She bought some delicate Smithfield ham because it was the closest thing to the Chinese ham she had known as a child. She finished off her windfall by purchasing a couple of pigeons. Then she combined her purchases, using the following unusual technique for making soup. It is called double-steaming, a process in which rich ingredients are steamed for hours in a covered casserole filled with soup. The technique extracts all the flavours from the ingredients, and is often used for making the classic shark’s fin and bird’s nest soups. The result is a distinctive soup, clear and rich but also light. You may know that in Chinese cuisine soups serve as a beverage, and therefore the broth or consommé style is the norm. But this soup may be served as a separate course.

To make the soup extra wholesome, my mother would add a few pieces of ginseng, a medicinal as well as a flavourful ingredient. However, I have omitted it from this recipe. For easy planning, I would make the soup in advance and freeze it, for it reheats well.

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Ingredients

  • 2 wood pigeons, about 450 g (1 lb) each
  • 1 × 115 g (4 oz) slice good-quality smoked ham
  • 1 litre ( pints) Chinese Chicken Stock or store-bought fresh stock
  • 4 slices fresh ginger, 5 cm × 3 mm (2 × ⅛ in)
  • 4 spring onions
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Method

Using a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, cut the pigeons in half. Bring a pot of water to the boil, turn the heat down and toss in the pigeons and the slice of ham. Simmer them in the water for 10 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and discard the water.

Set up a steamer, or put a rack into a wok or deep pan, and fill it with 5 cm (2 in) of water. Bring the water to the boil over a high heat.

Meanwhile, bring the stock to the boil in another large pot and then pour it into a heatproof china casserole. Add the pigeon, ham, ginger, spring onions, Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry, salt and pepper to the casserole and cover it with a lid or foil. Put the casserole on the rack and cover the wok or deep pan tightly with a lid or foil. You now have a casserole within a steamer, hence the term ‘double-steaming’. Turn the heat down and steam gently for 2 hours, replenishing the hot water from time to time.

When the soup is cooked, remove all the ingredients with a slotted spoon and discard the spring onions and ginger. Cut the ham and pigeons into bite-size pieces and put them on a platter. Serve the soup alongside the pigeon and ham. The soup can be served immediately or, if made ahead, cooled and stored in the refrigerator or freezer to be reheated just before serving.

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