Taste of Life: Duck delicacy and prized bag - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: Duck delicacy and prized bag

ByChinmay Damle
Mar 21, 2024 08:28 AM IST

Poona was poorly supplied with game birds. Except for quail, and on rare occasions duck and snipe, no large bags were made in and around Poona

Pune: On November 8, 1934, a truck carrying logs of wood to Bombay from Khandala collided with another vehicle at the ghats. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Unfortunately, while the police and local villagers were trying to clear the road, another van hit the debris. This time, however, two policeman suffered injuries.

Of the resident wild ducks found in Poona, the most usual, but by no means common or abundant, was the small cinnamon-coloured Lesser Whistling Teal. Poona was poorly supplied with game birds. Except for quail, and on rare occasions duck and snipe, no large bags were made in and around the city. ((PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))
Of the resident wild ducks found in Poona, the most usual, but by no means common or abundant, was the small cinnamon-coloured Lesser Whistling Teal. Poona was poorly supplied with game birds. Except for quail, and on rare occasions duck and snipe, no large bags were made in and around the city. ((PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

A couple of weeks later, one Mrs Reuben wrote to the “Bombay Sentinel” complaining about the closure of the ghat due to the accident. No vehicles had plied between Bombay and Poona for three days after the mishap. Reuben complained that fowls like ducks and other foodstuffs that came to the Poona market from Bombay had not been available for almost a week. She blamed the police for not working fast enough to clear the road.

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Reuben did not mention why she was upset after she could not buy ducks. Maybe she wanted to put up a crowd-pleasing spread at a party she was hosting, and her plans were thwarted by the non-availability of quality ducks. Maybe she was craving for a roast duck. We do not know. But Reuben was angry for not being able to buy good ducks in the Poona market.

Poona was poorly supplied with game birds. Except for quail, and on rare occasions duck and snipe, no large bags were made in and around Poona. Quality ducks came to Poona from Goa, Dharwad, and Bombay.

The district was not particularly good for duck shooting since it had few shallow monsoon-filled depressions with muddy bottoms and partly submerged reed beds elsewhere known as “jheels”. Wildfowls loved these “jheels”. Such lakes were deep irrigation reservoirs formed by the damming of streams. These open expanses of water lacked aquatic vegetation and did not attract ducks except as daytime refuges where they could sleep to comparative safety and fly out to forage in the surrounding inundated paddy fields at night.

However, the Common Teal, the Garganey or Blue-winged Teal, the Shoveller, the Pochard or Dun Bird, and the Tufted Pochard were some of the species of migratory ducks to be found in Poona in the cold season.

Of the resident wild ducks, the most usual, but by no means common or abundant, was the small cinnamon-coloured Lesser Whistling Teal and to a lesser extent the large Nukta or Comb Duck, largely glossy black above, white below with a prominent knob or “comb” at base of bill near the forehead. Both of these species as well as the diminutive Cotton Teal or Goose Teal usually nested during the monsoon months in the rotten hollows of tree trunks standing in or near water where their nests were safe from the flooding frequently caused by heavy downpours. The Cotton Teal was slightly larger than the pigeon and of a colouring and pattern rather like that of the comb duck.

During the winter months, the Brahminy Duck or the Ruddy shelduck visited Poona. As “chakwa-chakwi”, it had won immortality in popular folklore. Legend described the birds as a pair of lovers torn apart by unkind fate ceaselessly calling and answering each other in anguished squeals. These birds were revered by the natives and they tried to protect them from European shooters whenever they could.

Ruddy shelducks were primarily vegetarian. Birds who ate plants were considered more delicious than those eating insects. But their numbers were never large enough for the shooters. It was also not considered by some to be at par with the mallard.

European duck shooters visited Bombay whenever they could. The Cotton Teal was common in the paddy fields in the city. The Scaup Duck bred around tanks near Panvel. The Whistling Teal, the Shoveller, the Gadwall, the Common Teal, the Garganey Teal, the Pochard or dun bird, the Nukta, the Tufted Pochard, and the Scaup were found in Bombay.

Pingli, a village of almost 600 people, lay four miles southwest of Dahiwadi at the junction of Pusesavli-Shingnapur and Satara-Pandharpur roads. It was the site of an irrigation pond on a small feeder of the Man River three miles above the headworks of the Gondoli Canal. About half a mile from the village was a campsite ideal for duck shooting. Snipes and rock grouse were abundant too.

Ducks were plentiful around Dharwad. Tadas, a village some eighteen miles from the town, was known for game hunting. Shikaris from Bombay and Poona usually frequented the village to hunt tigers and leopards. But it was also known for its large supply of duck and snipe. The camp at Tadas was close to several tanks. A Berthon boat was always available for the shooters.

The duck was prized by the British because it was not as easily available as the chicken. And because the French loved it. The first President of France, Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, was fond of duck-shooting. The British, always competing with the French to prove their epicurean credentials, took a liking to ducks and ducklings. Filleted and roast ducks began to be served at soirees.

Duck was not a popular bird all over India. Some European families reared their own ducks for the dinner table. Ducks and turkeys were reared by some Christians and Muslims. Goans ate fiery duck “curries” laced with vinegar and coconut. Ducks from Goa were sent to Bombay and were prized far more than the local varieties.

In the early twentieth century, several government research institutes were set up in India to systematically rear and breed fowls. Rhode Island Red and White Leghorn hens were bred and maintained at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, while the Mission Poultry Farm, Etah, had specialised in Black Minorcas. The Government Poultry Farm, United Provinces, Lucknow, had “high egg-laying” strains of all these breeds. However, no systematic breeding was being done anywhere in India in the case of ducks, geese, and drakes, until the Agricultural Institute, Allahabad, started rearing and breeding White Runner ducks.

However, duck rearing in India never flourished. European ladies like Reuben continued to complain about lack of wild ducks in and around Poona.

Here is a recipe for roast wild duck from “Anglo-Indian Cuisine” by Lady Constance Gordon of Poona written in 1904 - “Rub the liver over the breast till it is red; roast before a brisk fire for 16 to 25 minutes, basting liberally with butter; send to table with a rich brown gravy. If the fishy taste is disliked, cover a deep baking tin to a depth of half an inch with boiling water, add a tablespoonful of salt, put in the bird, and bake it for ten minutes, basting very frequently with the salt and water. Then dry, sprinkle lightly with flour, baste well with hot water, and either roast in front of a clear fire for about twenty minutes or bake it for the same length of time in a moderately hot oven. These birds should always be served rather underdone, otherwise they lose their flavour. On the table close to the carver should be a deep silver dish, with hot water or a spirit burner under it; put into this one oz of butter, two glasses of Port Wine or Claret, one of Worcester sauce, the juice of half a lime, a sprinkle of salt, and a pinch of cayenne; the carver should put the pieces of bird into this as he carves them; add the gravy, stir it round, and let the guests help themselves’.

This roast duck was served with an orange salad.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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