6 Places for Pigeon – China's Tastiest Culinary Experiment

By Sophie Steiner, March 3, 2023

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Shanghai has an unhealthy obsession with all things opulence, and – like your mentally unstable ex – is not scared to flaunt it.

From shaved truffle to caviar, uni to foie gras, Shanghai wants it all. And the more excessive the better. 

So it's no surprise that the latest in the lineup of buzz words – pigeon – is running the gambit these days, finding its way as the focal point on many a menu around the city.

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

So why pigeon?

Zhongshan in Guangdong has a history of more than two millennia of raising pigeons. Beloved for both its flavor, meat texture and health benefits, Zhongshan cooks are renowned for devising infinite ways to cook this coveted bird.

It's been used in wedding ceremonies, banquets and feasts for thousands of years, while pigeon broth has even been used as a form of herbal medicine to recover from illness or surgery. 

Then, in 1915 – in what began as a culinary-meets-science experiment – the famed local Zhongshan pigeon was cross-bred with a finer breed of foreign pigeon to create what is now known as the Shiqi Pigeon. The region now has an annual output of several million.

Prized for its tender meat – slightly gamey, salty and rich flavor – and taut skin that puckers and crisps easily, young pigeon – or squab – has more protein, iron and other necessary vitamins and minerals, coupled with a lower fat content than other common poultry.

A local saying goes: "One pigeon is more nutritious than nine chickens."

More recently, farmers on Chongming Island – Shanghai's own backyard – have also started breeding pigeons, making them all the more accessible to Shanghai's dining scene and bringing pigeon to an even wider audience.

While pigeon can be found all over the city, we recently savored this regional delicacy marinated, dry-aged, smoked, Josper oven-roasted, charcoal-grilled, and even dipped in beeswax at these six Shanghai restaurants' new seasonal menus. 

Junn Izakaya

The newest restaurant by Craig Willis, Junn Izakaya in Wukang Market is all about scratching that izakaya itch without needing to explore unchartered territory; the menu is traditional izakaya fare, plus a few Shanghai twists, namely the dry-aged Chongming pigeon, available in three cuts – Leg (RMB58), Breast (RMB58) and Wing (RMB58)

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The rosy breast meat is plump and gamey, with just the right amount of scorched smokiness from the binchotan grill. A squeeze of calamansi and a dusting of Japanese yuzu salt add the ideal balance of brightness and salinity. 

Junn Izakaya, 98 Wukang Lu, by Wuyuan Lu,  武康路98号, 近五原路.

Ma-ia-ki

More than just a yakitori that customarily focuses on chicken, Ma-ia-ki specializes first and foremost in yakihato – or open-fire grilled pigeon. 

Chef Guo applies his 17 years of training first and foremost to the restaurant’s 10-14 days dry-aged Chongming Island pigeon, the highlight dish of Ma-ia-ki's menu.

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Aged Thigh’s (RMB68) taut skin chars to a rich, dark brown that – when pulled away (preferably with ravenous teeth) – reveals the juiciest of meat underneath. 

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In the same vein, the Aged Breast (RMB68) is denser, yet still equally tender, highlighting the protein’s deeply gamey and complex flavor.

There is a reason the pigeon is their specialty; they treat it with the respect it deserves.

Ma-ia-ki, 1/F, Bldg 2, 570 Yongjia Lu, by Yueyang Lu  永嘉路570号2栋1楼,近岳阳路.

The Merchants

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The Merchant's signature dish, the Woodfire Oven Roasted Pigeon (RMB148), also hails from Chongming. 

Marinated in oolong tea for a week, then dry-aged for four days, the squab is next smoked and finally finished in the Josper oven.

It's a lot of steps for such a little bird, but oh-so-worth it for the resulting unctuous flesh encased in expertly caramelized skin.

The meat’s overly rich, liver-like depth is cut by the acidity of a quenelle of sour plum and yellow wine compote. 

The Merchants, 52 Yongfu Lu, by Fuxing Zhong Lu 永福路52号, 近复兴中路.

New Wave by Da Vittorio

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

At New Wave by Da Vittorio, a prudent companion for Pigeon Risotto (RMB368) is the addition of pumpkin purée, adding further lushness and reducing the amount of butter needed so as not to make diners feel overly full.

The Chongming pigeon breast is first dipped in bees wax – lending a floral fragrance to the meat – then dry-aged and pan-fried.

The star of the dish, however, is the vin brulè reduction, inspired by a type of Piedmont mulled wine spiced with anise, cinnamon and black pepper, and stewed with warming fruits like apple and pear.

The sauce is stirred with beef jus and then dribbled atop the perfectly al dente risotto, juxtaposed against crunchy spheres of pickled pumpkin. 

New Wave by Da Vittorio, 3/F, UCCA Edge, Xizang Bei Lu, by Qufu Lu 西藏北路88号UCCAEdge三层.

PHÉNIX

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

One of the highest quality pigeons sourced from China, Le Pigeon (RMB568) on PHÉNIX's new dinner menu hails from the traditional source: Zhongshan in Guangdong.

The breast is rolled around a succulent dab of foie gras, then charcoal-grilled before being smoked under a glass cloche with rosemary, and served alongside a Xinjiang plum sauce.

The equally juicy pigeon thigh is served with the feet still attached – what Chef Ugo refers to as "Chinese rather than Western style." 

PHÉNIX, 2/F, 1 Changde Lu, by Yanan Zhong Lu 常德路1号2楼, 近延安中路.

Sui Tang Li

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A Zhongshan Pigeon with Summer Shimmer Tea Leaves (RMB128) is marinated for six hours at Sui Tang Li, then smoked with Xiamen-based tea company Basao's summer shimmer tea.

The addition of this floral smoke adds a peachy, fruity aroma to balance the pigeon’s gaminess, served atop plump porcini mushrooms with rosemary.

Sui Tang Li2/F, The Middle House Residences, 366 Shi Men Yi Lu, by Wujiang Lu 石门一路366号镛舍公寓式酒店二层, 近吴江路.

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