When I look out through my kitchen window, I can see a pane of broken glass that looks a bit like the Twitter bird. Perhaps this was the subconscious inspiration for a recent dinner menu, which was both Egyptian- and bird-themed. That may have been the inspiration – but the motivation? A duck.
That’s right. Every time I walk to my local vegetable market I pass a poultry guy with the freshest chickens around and, without fail, a flock of ducks and other interesting non-chicken fowl (documentation here). Between this, and the stories I keep hearing from Egyptians about how great their duck recipes are, and the incredible duck I ate at a family-style restaurant down in Luxor last January, I’ve been dying to try my hand at cooking one myself.
This is partially due to the role duck plays in my frequently repeated defense of Egyptian cuisine. To all the haters who say Egyptian food is bad, duck is my go-to Exhibit A filed under Evidence to the Contrary. To people who reply huffily that yes, ok, fine, it is possible to eat well in Cairo, but it’s just so much harder to do so here than anywhere else, my response is, please name for me one thing that is not harder to do in Cairo than anywhere else.*
Anyhow, the important thing, as a wise woman probably said, sometime, somewhere, is to cook the duck in front of you.
Egyptian-Style Duck (البط)
I should mention that “duck” is one of my favorite words in Arabic: boṭṭ. Those fancy t‘s with the dots under them mean than when you say them you have to place your tongue against the back of your front teeth instead of tapping it to the roof of your mouth. And the fact that there are two of them means that you must pronounce it for twice as long as a single letter. This special t also alters the vowel that comes before it, so although it’s really an a sort of vowel, it comes out more like an ahhh sort of vowel here, as in awe or thaw.
Anyway, another fun fact about boṭṭ is that according to the ninth-century Syrian Nestorian physician Yuhanna ibn Masawaih, duck meat warms you up from the inside and gives you strength. Also, it’s good for your complexion.
There is so much more to say about ducks, truly, but let’s get to the recipe, which is adapted from my roommate’s mother’s instructions regarding her family recipe.
You will need:
A duck (obviously), organs and neck removed. You’ll be boiling it first, so if fitting your duck into your pot(s) requires cutting it into pieces (and that is ok), cut it up as well. Like this:
10 cardamom pods
Several pinches of mastika, sometimes called Arabic gum (if you cannot find it, make the duck anyway. Nobody will tell on you)
5 yellow onions, sliced
At least half a cup of tomato paste. Let’s be real, probably more
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons of honey
At least half a cup of orange juice. No, more. A cup should do it
Salt and pepper to taste
Crush the cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle and remove the shells. Then crush the insides of the pods with the gum arabic. Toss these and your sliced onions into the largest pot you’ve got, fill with water, and bring to a boil.
Place your duck inside and boil for two and a half hours (yes. It’s a lot of bird), partially covered.
While you’re waiting, mix together a generous amount of tomato paste, your orange juice, honey, and salt and pepper.
Once the duck has boiled for two and a half hours (it’s a good idea to flip it to and fro every half hour or so, and top off the water to ensure that the meat is evenly and thoroughly cooked), place it in an ovenproof dish, and coat very generously with 3/4 of the tomato-honey-orange mixture. Reserve the rest for periodic touching-up while it bakes.
Bake it in the oven at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
It will be tender and delicious. Also, it will be red. Also, reserve that sauce, because everyone will want more of it. Also important: keep the broth you cook the duck in and put it to good use.
We served it with stuffed artichokes (like little birds’ nests) and shorbet lisan asfour, or Egyptian “bird tongue soup.” And when I say “bird tongue,” I mean risotto. Sorry to disappoint. Also, a fresh salad, but we couldn’t come up with a very good bird connection for that part.
*All this has been on my mind even more than usual lately, as the perennial question of “which Middle Eastern country has the best cuisine, and how do we prove it?” came up during the Q&A of a talk I gave at the American University in Cairo’s Middle East Studies Center last week (I’m quickly learning that no matter what the subject of your talk, if it mentions food in any way, this is probably going to come up). I’m very happy to be able to share this lovely write up about it (the talk, not the competing national cuisines question) from one of my favorite blogs (seriously, between the duck, the talk, and the blog post, it’s like Christmas around here) – which anyone interested in Arabic literature & translation should follow, if you don’t already.