CRY­ING FOWL

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE - Vir Sanghvi

WHY DO IN­DI­ANS love chicken so much? Or is it just North In­di­ans who can’t seem to get enough of the bird? I know of sev­eral chefs who have been warned that they need to change their menus if they are to suc­ceed in Delhi. One chef at a lead­ing ho­tel chain was told that his Delhi non-veg­e­tar­ian menu would have to be 60 per cent chicken (if not 70 per cent). Ev­ery­thing else (fish, mut­ton, pork, duck, ‘ten­der­loin’, etc) could not ex­ceed 30-40 per cent of the menu.

Even as I’ve as­sured chefs that this is not true — the peo­ple of Delhi do eat other meat — the ev­i­dence around us has sug­gested the ex­act op­po­site. Take the ham­burger. All over the world, the patty is made from beef. In In­dia, pub­lic and reli­gious sen­si­tiv­i­ties may mit­i­gate against beef burg­ers, so it should be pos­si­ble to make the patty from buffalo (‘ten­der­loin’) or goat. But no, most In­dian ham­burg­ers are made from a breaded chicken patty. It doesn’t taste any­thing like a real ham­burger — it tastes re­volt­ing, ac­tu­ally — but, hey! It sells.

Or take a more mys­te­ri­ous ex­am­ple: the sausage. In most of the world, sausages are usu­ally made from pork and per­haps from beef (or from a mix­ture of beef and pork). Once

Our food busi­nesses are more chick­en­cen­tric than those in other coun­tries. And yet, we’ve failed to ap­pre­ci­ate its In­dian ori­gins

again, I can un­der­stand why a beef sausage might be un­ac­cept­able in In­dia, but what’s wrong with a pork sausage? In fact, un­til about a decade ago, most sausages served at restaurants were made from pork. But now, even deluxe hotels, which should know bet­ter, serve chicken sausages. Peo­ple even put chicken sausage on top of pizza or make hot dogs with it. Ninety-nine per cent of the chicken sausages I have tasted in In­dia are taste­less. Chew­ing on one is like eat­ing a slice of rub­ber tub­ing filled with goo. And yet, the mys­te­ri­ous pop­u­lar­ity of the chicken sausage con­tin­ues to grow.

One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the pop­u­lar­ity of chicken as a meat of choice is that we in­vented it.

The do­mes­tic chicken (the bird we eat) seems to have been first bred in the In­dus Val­ley at least 4,000 years ago. DNA anal­y­sis sug­gests that the an­ces­tors of the chicken were the gray jun­gle fowl of south In­dia and the red jun­gle fowl, whose habi­tat stretched from north­east In­dia to the Philip­pines.

These two wild species be­gat the mod­ern chicken, whose great­est ap­peal to early man was that it could hardly fly, mak­ing it per­fect for breed­ing pur­poses. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have re­cov­ered chicken bones from Lothal, an In­dus Val­ley site, and it is be­lieved that our In­dus Val­ley an­ces­tors ex­ported chick­ens to the Mid­dle East. Cuneiform tablets from an­cient Me­sopotamia re­fer to “the bird of Meluha”, which was their name for our In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion. (‘Bird of Meluha’ sounds like the ti­tle of an Amish Tri­pathi novel, doesn’t it?)

The chick­ens trav­elled from Me­sopotamia to an­cient Egypt (where they per­fected the art of get­ting them to lay eggs on a daily ba­sis) and then to Rome, from where they landed on the Euro­pean ta­ble. As time went on, the West for­got that the chicken was ac­tu­ally an In­dian bird and soon came to re­gard it as its own.

It is tempt­ing to ar­gue that if the chicken first emerged in the In­dus Val­ley, then it must be a Pun­jabi bird. Af­ter all, the cities of Harappa and Mo­henjo Daro are now in Pak­istan and the bound­aries of the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion were thought to cover only mod­ern Pun­jab and Sindh. But re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence sug­gests that the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion ac­tu­ally cov­ered a much larger area and Lothal — where the first chicken bones have been found

— is near present-day Ahmed­abad. (That’s one slo­gan Gu­jarat Tourism will not use: “Ahmed­abad – The Orig­i­nal Home of the De­li­cious Chicken”.)

And yet, for all its early glory, the chicken only came into its own in the 20th cen­tury be­cause of a tri­umph of breed­ing tech­nol­ogy. The pop­u­lar im­age of the chicken roam­ing around a farm­yard used to be ac­cu­rate. Chick­ens need vi­ta­min D, which they syn­the­sise from sun­light. But farm breed­ing was a time-con­sum­ing process that did not al­low for economies of scale.

In the 20th cen­tury, it be­came pos­si­ble to for­tify chicken feed with vi­ta­mins and an­tibi­otics. This meant that chick­ens no longer needed sun­light and could be kept in­doors. And that’s how the bat­tery hen was born. Chick­ens be­gan to be bred in fac­to­ries. They were packed tightly into wire cages so small that they could not even spread their wings. Large win­dow­less build­ings that could house 20,000 to 30,000 chick­ens at one time were con­structed all over the world.

In the old days, it took a chicken around three or four months to be­come large enough to slaugh­ter. Now, chem­i­cally fed bat­tery hens reach five pounds in weight in just six weeks. That means that a) the cost of feed halves along with the chicken’s life and b) turnover dou­bles be­cause the chick­ens grow to a slaugh­ter-able ma­tu­rity twice as quickly as they used to. And they need less feed, pound for pound, than pigs or cows.

Once you un­der­stand the eco­nom­ics of mod­ern chicken breed­ing, it is easy to see why the fast-food in­dus­try loves it so much. When you buy in bulk from a chicken fac­tory, chicken is the cheap­est meat that a fast-food chain can pur­chase. So why bother to make any­thing (a hot dog, a ham­burger, a kabab, or any­thing at all) with ex­pen­sive, good-qual­ity meat when you can sim­ply use cheap, in­dus­trial chicken?

But of course, there is a price to be paid for pre­fer­ring fac­tory chick­ens. Most chick­ens used in restaurants these days are bland, flabby and taste­less. You can get away with this in a curry be­cause the spices mask the taste of the chicken, but a tan­doori item de­pends on the qual­ity of the bird. A few places in­sist on buy­ing free-range chick­ens (the so-called coun­try chick­ens), which are full of flavour, but most chefs don’t like them be­cause they can be tougher and smaller than the rub­ber-soft, large broiler chick­ens they pull out of the deep freeze.

Oddly enough, it is the stan­dalones and the older restaurants that hold out for real chick­ens. Too many five-star hotels save money by us­ing in­dus­trial broil­ers. The chefs claim that peo­ple re­ally can’t tell the dif­fer­ence and that it’s not worth spend­ing the ex­tra money on real chick­ens. Per­haps they are right. But in my ex­pe­ri­ence, guests can taste the dif­fer­ence even if they can’t put it into words.

Why, for in­stance, is the tan­doori chicken at Bukhara so pop­u­lar and so tasty? The an­swer lies in the chicken: the Bukhara chefs use a smaller, free-range bird. Guests are happy to pay Bukhara prices for the chicken be­cause they know that it is spe­cial even if they haven’t worked out that the dif­fer­ence in flavour is be­cause of the qual­ity of the chicken.

Many food­ies be­lieve that the myth of In­dia’s fond­ness for chicken is a bit of a chicken and egg (Sorry!) story. Do we re­ally like in­dus­trial chicken that much? Or have we just got used to eat­ing chicken be­cause the big food com­pa­nies make their money by get­ting us to eat it? At least one knowl­edge­able per­son in the food busi­ness has told me that he doesn’t think it is a co­in­ci­dence that so many politi­cians are into chicken breed­ing or that big chicken breed­ers have such strong po­lit­i­cal links.

What is clear is that our food busi­nesses are more chicken-cen­tric than those in other coun­tries. In­dia must be the only mar­ket where fast food is more chicken-fo­cused than other meat. And we are cer­tainly the only coun­try I know of where even top chefs are happy to use broil­ers — birds that would not make it past the kitchen door in most West­ern restaurants.

Which is bizarre. It is Amer­ica that in­vented chicken fac­to­ries in the 20th cen­tury. But Amer­i­can chefs are turn­ing away from in­dus­trial chick­ens and find­ing free-range birds with real flavour. On the other hand, it is In­dia where the free-range chicken first made an ap­pear­ance five thou­sand years ago.

And guess what? Our chefs are in thrall to the fac­tory bird.

It’s not just a be­trayal of the tra­di­tions of our an­ces­tors. It is also a sad com­men­tary on the palate of a na­tion.

In­dian burg­ers use a breaded chicken patty. It tastes re­volt­ing, but hey! It sells

I’ve sourced the his­tory of the chicken from the Smith­so­nian Mag­a­zine, June 2012.

MEAT OF THE MAT­TER

Bat­tery-farmed hens make for big birds that grow quickly and cheaply, but their meat is bland, flabby and taste­less

PECKING OR­DER

While most restaurants use bat­tery-farmed birds (above left), Bukhara chefs use a smaller, free-range bird. The re­sult­ing tan­doori chicken is far more pop­u­lar and tasty

Pho­tos: SHUTTERSTOCK

A TOUGH OLD BIRD

The do­mes­tic chicken (the bird we eat) seems to have been first bred in the In­dus Val­ley at least 4,000 years ago

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