Looking back at that sepia toned period, “when I was growing up”, I realise I had a pretty privileged time when it came to food. Every autumn we’d start eating game – usually pheasant – for dinner every week or two. It would invariably be casseroled in red wine, one of my step-dad’s staples when it was his turn to cook dinner.
Of course, being a typical kid, all I really wanted was egg and chips, maybe a mars bar for pudding. What was this game, this fresh fish and seafood? Give me deep fried fast food horror instead! Okay, so maybe I wasn’t that bad, but it was only when I grew up and out of home that I truly realised what a treat it was.
Happily, getting good game is no longer a matter of making friends with the local farmer-cum-poacher and buying shot-riddled birds in the local pub. You can get them from most good butchers, even some supermarkets are getting in on the game (sorry).
The whole pheasant and curry combo didn’t occur to me until much later. It was after finding out that chickens originally came from South and South East Asia and spent their time running around eating seeds and avoiding bigger, toothier animals. They were likely to be much leaner and more muscly than today’s coddled fowl. Basically, a bit like pheasant.
I started to use the game bird in the spicier curries figuring that the meat would stand up well to strong flavours and heat. And boy was I rewarded! The spices mellowed the gamey flavour a little but the taste still shone through. The 30-40 minute cooking times allow the spices to really permeate the lean meat, and the sauce stops it from drying out.
After this I started to play around some more. Spicy roast pigeon, venison instead of lamb or beef in chilli and curries, even goose bhuna when I had some left over from Xmas. And they all work brilliantly.
In this dish, the spicing is pretty simple, the chillies giving the dish an insistent heat that builds slowly but doesn’t overwhelm the whole. And using fresh chillies, garlic, ginger and coriander adds a certain summery freshness to the sauce. Throw in the aromatic, almost sweet, cardamom and a foundation of good tasty meat and you have something that appeals on many levels.
Serves four with rice and sides, two if it’s going solo as a main
I based this on a chitermee from Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Johnny Scott’s Game Cookbook. I may disagree with their politics, but my word, they really know their game. It’s well written with lots of interesting ways to cook anything you can shoot, stab, run down or pluck from a river.
I made a few inevitable substitutions, but the key spices are there. And I used fresh tomatoes instead of tinned, but you could easily substitute one for the other. It would also work with guinea fowl, pigeon, and game bird really.
1 pheasant – cut into eight sections
3 red onions – finely sliced
2 long red hot chillies – finely chopped
A small handful of fresh coriander – leaves and stalks finely chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
5 green cardamom pods
1 clove garlic – finely sliced
1 thumb sized piece of ginger – peeled and finely chopped
3 medium-large tomatoes – finely chopped
2 tblsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp tomato puree
1 tsp umami paste (optional – add some more tomato paste if you don’t have any)
Glug some oil into a pan, put it over a medium heat and chuck in the onions, stirring until they’re golden. Add the chillies, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, garlic and ginger. Stir and fry it for a couple of minutes then add the pheasant pieces. Sautee for about 15 minutes, turning and stirring occasionally.
Add the vinegar, tomatoes and pastes, stir and turn down to a simmer. Leave to cook for 25 minutes, by which time the sauce should have reduced and thickened, clinging to the meat. Serve over rice cooked with a little saffron.