It seems the chicken was first bred in the Indus Valley

Vir Sanghvi on how our food businesses are more chicken-centric than those in other countries; but we’ve failed to appreciate its Indian origins
Most restaurants in India use battery-farmed birds(Shutterstock)
Most restaurants in India use battery-farmed birds(Shutterstock)
Updated on Sep 10, 2016 10:16 PM IST
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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 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.

Indian burgers use a breaded chicken patty, which tastes revolting, but sells nevertheless (Shutterstock)
Indian burgers use a breaded chicken patty, which tastes revolting, but sells nevertheless (Shutterstock)

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.

Read: An appetite for foreign shores: Offering food India eats to the world

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.

Bukhara chefs use smaller, free-range birds, which is why their tandoori chicken is far more popular and tasty
Bukhara chefs use smaller, free-range birds, which is why their tandoori chicken is far more popular and tasty

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.

Read: Why does Indian food not get the respect it deserves?

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.

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

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.

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

From HT Brunch, June 12, 2016

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