Memory is a strange bird. Distorted by time, tears and wishful thinking, every memory is a practice in revisionism – and not simply an act of revisiting the past. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine why I would have fabricated a memory about a quail. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, having dinner in the lively cellar of a restaurant in New York City with the better part of my rowdy Lebanese half of the family. My uncle, working a strong Telly Savalas vibe, picked up his fork and stabbed the golden breast of the bird on his plate. He held it up for the kids to see. Tucked and trussed like a roast hen but with the dimensions of a hamster. I found it deeply disturbing; nobody remembers the event but me.
Like most people who love quail, it’s hard for me to resist ordering it when I spot it on a menu. But while a platter of crisp, juicy buttermilk-fried chicken is my idea of heaven, the love does not extend to fried quail, a dish that’s gained mysterious popularity. With fried quail, the crust-to-meat ratio is all wrong, and because it’s harder to control the heat when frying, the meat tends to end up overdone, which is the perfect way to ruin quail. Cook chicken through to the bone, but the tender nuggets of sweet quail meat are best enjoyed medium-rare.
I learnt this definitively last weekend when I got up close and personal with a dozen quails. Having never cooked it at home, I went with a three-pronged approach: what better way to figure out the best way than to try it every way? Quail recipes are, by and large, annoying; if something needs to be suffocated in marmalade to be good, it probably wasn’t very good to begin with. Besides, I like the taste of quail meat. Aiming for a perfect medium-rare across the board, and armed with garlic and herbs, we pan-fried four marinated quails to crispy goodness, sizzled four more over the hot coals of the grill, and blitzed the rest under the broiler for a couple of minutes. Grilling was the unanimous winner – and the broiler was a fail, with the heat overcooking the meat, elevating the slight gaminess to straight-up livery, and causing the flesh to dissolve into a grainy mess.
Arabs are big fans of hunting small game birds – and eating them, too. The Lebanese prize their assafir, or ortolans, the crunchy, bite-sized delicacy whose consumption is the topic of some controversy (they’re illegal in Europe). Another favourite, squab, is a young domesticated pigeon raised for food and sport as has been done in the Middle East since ancient times.
Throughout the Arab world, squabs are stuffed and grilled, and have a flavour similar to chicken thighs. Like quail, squab is best enjoyed medium-rare, with one exception: the traditional Andalusi Arab dish, bisteeya. Reminiscent of a savoury baklava, it’s an elaborate sweet-and-savoury pie made with slow-braised spiced squab, shredded to make a rich filling that’s wrapped in crackly, paper-thin layers of pastry, topped with ground toasted almond, cinnamon and a dusting of powdered sugar. Almaz by Momo in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates and The Galleria in Abu Dhabi serve a decent, if slightly cloying, version of both chicken and squab bisteeya.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico