‘Af’ago k’eyin aparo, ohun oju wa l’oju ri (Yoruba language)’
‘He who packs pheasants egg with the local bird cage (made with a mesh of raffia palms, and having large holes), will find what he has been searching for.
Translation: The man who doesn’t listen to advice will lose out for the bird cage referred to in the proverb has large holes, so if they are used for small eggs, they likely are to fall through the openings and get broken/lost!
I am easy to surprise, I know. It means I delight easily in little known treasures, in new discoveries, that I’m excited even about the most blasé of things. Sure it means too that I may experience more disappointments than most but this is an equation that’s balanced in my books.
I know my country, I know myself. There are no surprises – there is nothing new to discover. No new fruits growing on trees I do not know. No bits of my personality that remain undiscovered. No birds or grains that I am a stranger to. The facts are clear about my country, clear about me – it is tropical, as I am tropical. And we are both ‘discovered’, independent, free.
Quails in Arabic and Hausa languages are referred to as Salwa; and are related to pheasants (Aparo, Yoruba language)
Till one evening, with the setting sun, I spot long-tailed blue birds in the trees surrounding the guesthouse we’re staying in. And yellow ones. Till I see brown birds sit by roadsides green, with grass and dusty with the passage of time and cars. Ivory chests puffed and fluffed, waiting for Godot to arrive. These are new birds to me. Not the cocks crowing at dawn that I know, or the white chested pigeons. These are ‘exotica’, I say to myself.
Till one afternoon a few weeks past, when my friend, B and I wander down the ‘grassy’ aisles at an office fair, peering into white-tented stalls. Often, twice or so times a year, these tents show up for a week-long affair. Vendors come, from far and wide and those like us, who have little time to shop on a daily-basis get some respite. Have some treasures presented to us.
At this fair, we spy nice kitchen towels, which I think would be gorgeous in photos, stopped to buy funtainers for her toddler’s warm meals for the crèche and continued our hunt for ‘something’.
It was the goose I spotted first. I knew it was a goose instantly. Or maybe a gander. Orange beaked and long necked.
I craned my neck, to see more and that’s when I saw the eggs, the quail eggs. I stopped in my tracks, and not wanting to give anything away asked the sales lady what kind of eggs they were. ‘Quail’ eggs she said. There were 4 or 5 boxes, each with about 30 eggs in them. I knew that if there were eggs, there were quails close by! I was over the moon. I loveeeeee quails. I cooked them once while we lived in the Netherlands and we enjoyed them – they were the perfect meal starter. I’ve made scotch eggs from the tiny eggs for a dinner party with Swedish friends. I’ve never fried them or poached them or scrambled them.
I hurried up, bought the eggs for N2500 (~10 euros), and couldn’t stop talking to my B about how much I loved quails and on and on. That is, till we got to another stall, where I saw the quails live! As well as a duck and a goose! And more eggs, selling for half the price I got mine!
It was then I discovered how ‘huge’ quail farming is in Nigeria. Unbelievable.
Now, poultry farming in Nigeria is huge, all year round but through the roof at Christmas-time. Chickens are the main birds being ‘reared’, and then guinea fowls. Turkey is available but not as common as chicken. So to see goose, and duck and now quails threw me completely.
First strawberries and now quails. What next? I feel responsible for all these new discoveries, these advancements! It appears wherever I move to, good things happen food wise. Or perhaps it’s just that as I grow in my knowledge, I make room to observe more, and by so doing I make many discoveries.
Although the quail is very small-sized bird, it belongs to the same bird family as pheasants (Aparo in Yoruba, western Nigerian language). Quails range in size depending on the species from the Japanese quail which is around 10cm tall to the larger mountain quail that can grow up to 25cm tall. Quails are generally solitary, ground birds. Quails do not tend to migrate and therefore, spend their lives within the same area. Quails eggs are a delicacy in some parts of the world.
I’ve cooked quail just once, and had it twice. The results, bite-sized though were delicious.
In Nigeria, they are purported to be food for the gods! I mean, all sorts of claims of youthfulness and health are ascribed to quail meat and eggs. They may all be true, but reasons such as being a remedy against digestive tract disorders such as gastritis, stomach ulcer and duodenal ulcer; curing anemia and increasing hemoglobin level, strong anticancer effects and promoting good memory and enhancing brain activity have nothing to do with my desire for them.
I buy 8 quails, alive. I am bold enough to have them prepared and dressed at home. They are so tiny, and they move around so much that I can hardly hold the box that contains them. Eventually I make it to the car and B and I start chatting about them. She says to me, ‘I won’t be able to eat the quails. I’ve seen them alive, heard them scratch…..there’s no way I can stomach the thought of eating them’. ‘Ok’, I say (that’s your problem, I think), shrugging my shoulders. I don’t think it will affect me. I will be able to eat them.
At home, my house-keeper is cleaning the quails when my children head to the back garden to play on the trampoline. They are (understandably) freaked out by the tiny birds. I smile. I watched chickens being prepared growing up and it never affected my eating them.
A few days pass and it’s time to cook the quails. Everything goes well. Well….almost.
The dish I plan on cooking is Nasi Tumpeng, a nod to Indonesia – this is a cone of yellow rice served as a platter, garnished with vegetables and other things round it.
Tumpeng is an Indonesian dish of cone-shaped rice surrounded by an assortment of vegetables and meat dishes. Traditionally featured in the slamatan ceremony, the cone shape of rice is made by using cone-shaped weaved bamboo container. The rice itself could be plain steam rice, uduk rice (cooked with coconut milk), or yellow rice (uduk rice colored with kunyit (turmeric)).
People in Java, Bali and Madura usually make Tumpeng to celebrate important events. However, all Indonesians are familiar with Tumpeng. The philosophy of Tumpeng is related to the geographical condition of Indonesia, especially Java as a fertile island with numerous mountains and volcanoes. Tumpeng dates back to ancient Indonesian traditions that revered mountains as the abode of ancestors and gods. The cone-shaped rice is meant to mimic the holy mountain. The feast served as some kind of thanksgiving for the abundance of harvest or any other blessings.
In the syukuran or slametan, the gratitude ceremony, after the people pray, the top of the Tumpeng is cut and delivered to the most important person. He or she may be the group leader, the oldest person, or the beloved one. Then, all people in the ceremony enjoy the tumpeng together. With tumpeng, people express the gratitude to God and appreciate togetherness and harmony.
The first time I made quails, it was for an Indonesian themed dinner party which I gave. Chicken satays, Gado gado (an Indonesian salad), and quail were on the menu. This is what I want to recreate, if in a slightly different manner.
Everything goes to plan. The plan of boiling the quails eggs, serving with a coconut sauce, along with the yellow rice (boiled with some Turmeric, lemon grass, cardamom and cloves) and Menado quails, oven-roasted and spiced with a tomato-chilli relish. I stir fry green beans, prepare a pitcher of lemongrass ‘ade’ and lunch is served.
My nieces are visiting and they can’t get enough of the quail. They are the only ones who eat it with gusto. But they weren’t there to witness the events leading up to the day!
My meat-loving first daughter, J however bursts into tears when I offer her the quail. ‘I can’t eat it. I’m afraid. I saw Aunty B clean them.’ Same goes for R, daughter #2.
I’m in total SHOCK. I comfort her, perplexed. Confused. And my mind is reeling.
I sit down to eat and I too cannot stomach the quails. I love the rice. The sauce is to
die live for. I hate the eggs. The quail’s eggs. They don’t taste fresh, in fact some taste bad and to think of all the trouble I went through to peel them. Most of all, the tiny bird I have sitting on my plate, I can’t eat. It feels wrong. A travesty. I try to chew the meat but it is tasteless. I push it to one side.
I am totally stumped. I now understand. A part of me truly understands why there are vegetarians from an ethical standpoint. Why it is hard to eat something that you’ve seen alive. How difficult it is to separate yourself from the suffering that you feel the meat on your plate has endured. I believe the size of the quail has something to do with it.
I ask my husband what he thinks and he says ‘It feels wrong to eat it. It’s so small’. I understand totally. The birds may be full-grown but they aren’t life-sized in the way and manner we have come to think of as ‘acceptable’ for eating.
I am shaken. Even today as I write. I am unsure of myself.
I am easy to surprise, I know. It means that though I think I know my country and know myself very well, I don’t. There are many surprises, shocks that await me – there is plenty that is new to discover, I too can change who I am, how I feel. I know now that I understand vegetarianism, that I’d never understood it before, experienced it like I did in this ‘quail experience’, that parts of my personality are still to be unveiled. The facts are clear about me – I may be a meat-eater, a meat-lover but I will never cook quails again. Never purchase them, or their eggs. Cannot ever be excited about them. Ever again. I may be independent and free but I hate suffering, in man, woman, child or bird. And through the eyes of my daughter, my children, I see the light.
Coconut-Peanut sauce, adapted from Chicken & Egg by Laurence & Gilles Laurendon
This is a great sauce that takes minutes to make and doesn’t require a meaty ‘stock’ base. It will be a great sauce for seafood (fish, shrimps and shellfish), poultry…by which I mean chicken and chicken alone and even beef!
To thicken the sauce, I added some peanut butter. A deviation from the recipe but I wanted the sauce thicker yet didn’t want to resort to cornstarch or flour to do so.
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2.5 cm/1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
4 dried curry leaves (or 1 tablespoon curry powder)
1 small cinnamon stick (or ½ teaspoon cinnamon powder)
1 – 2 tablespoons peanut butter
500ml coconut milk
2 whole green chillies, chopped (seeds removed if you want it a bit milder)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt, to taste
Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and sauté till softened.
Add the Turmeric powder, curry and cinnamon and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring continuously
Add the peanut butter, followed by the coconut milk and the chopped chillies.
Season to taste with the salt, cover and leave to simmer for 10 – 12 minutes.
If used, remove and discard the curry leaves and the cinnamon stick
Stir in the lemon juice at the last minute, adjust seasoning to taste and serve with the boiled eggs.
It was a heavenly sauce – with depth from a simple combination of ingredients. It was a perfect accompaniment to the rice, and even the boiled eggs.
Rich yet light, full of flavor that was not over-whelming ‘coconut’, and yet the peanut taste was a mere hint, subtle.
The texture was just right. Not thick and yet not watery, soupy like a broth. This was a light sauce, the consistency of single cream that was fragrant and sweet, spicy and a welcome redemption to the disaster, to the uproar that eating quails has wrought.
How well do you know yourself? Are you still finding out things that surprise you….after ‘decades’ of knowing you??? Share them all!