There was a time and not that long ago; Singaporeans ate nothing but firm, meaty and flavoursome kampung chicken. That is the French breed of chicken acquiring the name kampung (or kampong), with its orange feathers and black head, commonplace roaming around Malay villages – a true free-range, happy chook.
Although the kampung chicken is still around, it is highly unlikely to be free-range in the Singapore supply chain and presumably a cellmate with the more common battery-reared white feathered hen.
It is ironic if not mindboggling that the “Chicken Capital of the World” and landmark dish of Singapore, Hainanese Chicken Rice, a staple for both locals and tourists and proudly served on Singapore Airlines is invariably intensively-farmed, inhumanely treated, inferior and unwholesome chickens.
The debate on the merits of free range and organic chickens as opposed to intensive-factory-farming has livened up considerably over the years, particularly in the UK where celebrity chef, Jamie Olivier, has denounced industrial-battery-raised chickens. Consequently demand in UK supermarkets for free-range birds has soared with awareness of the negative aspects of intensive chicken farming both in the suffering of the birds and the inadequate quality of the meat.
Whilst the appalling if not macabre living conditions the poultry endure in battery farming is an emotive issue, of greater concern is that the chickens are unnaturally bred to grow more quickly, exacerbated by the use of large quantities of antibiotics or concoctions of immunization drugs to supplement inherently weak immune systems and combat the rampant spread of diseases in the overcrowded conditions of intensive-farming.
Of equal concern is the unnatural ground-up mash that the chickens are fed, modified so that the chickens can digest in their confined state, and laced with synthetic vitamins to replace the lack of organic vitamins that would otherwise occur naturally given ample space, fresh air and most crucially, sunlight, to facilitate essential vitamin D.
Then there are the issues of chemical residuals from artificial fertilizers, genetically modified feeds and systemic pesticides as invariably none of the feeds will be from organic sources.
It is important, however, not to be drawn in to the misinformation of chickens containing hormones which technically has been banned in poultry since 1959. Unfortunately this mistruth has been distorted by marketers and an ill-informed consumer.
The bottom line is that intensively-farmed chickens grow at an unnatural pace in an extraneous environment of artificial lighting and growth-promoting antibiotic-laced feed, resulting in mediocre meat quality and bland taste.
On the other hand, the principal ideologies of free-range poultry and organic farming are built on positive health and naturally immune birds, with restricted use of medicines and free from any artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
All the evidence points towards happier chooks are tastier chooks.
Have Singaporeans lost their chicken-genesis?
Singaporeans demand food that has a regional identity, with exacting preparation bordering on a nationalistic obsession. Yet they place little importance on the provenance of chickens, thus have they lost the plot with the extolled Hainanese chicken.
It is well-known among gourmands and great chefs that the nucleus of gastronomy lies in where the produce is grown or produced and subsequently its unique character and quality, and subsequently how one handles it in the kitchen.
However, in Singapore it appears there is a presumption that Hainanese Chicken is superior because of the techniques that go into preparation, regardless of the ill-treated fowl or its provenance.
I personally know scores of people in Singapore, both local and expatriates, who advocate free-range chickens and yet, a freshly-chilled free-range chicken, that is not frozen, does not exist here.
This is bizarre, particularly in a city purporting to be a gastronomic destination. You might find a few US suppliers of organic poultry, only available frozen and are prohibitively expensive to which one can only assume have been air-freighted or sailed first-class and assuredly have a high carbon footprint.
I am informed by food importers that there are highly-restrictive regulations in Singapore governed by the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) with importation of poultry from anywhere other than Malaysia, and particularly free-range or organic chickens, uneconomical and virtually impossible.
Thus I was surprised when researching sources for free-range or organic chickens that I encountered a western-style butcher here that insisted their chickens, sourced from Malaysia, were indeed free-range. They were in fact out of freshly-slaughtered birds that day, so I returned a few weeks later, again checking on the claim of free-range, to which they were emphatic, to which I purchased one to do the taste test.
I was not at all convinced this was free-range chicken, both from the appearance of the sizable carcass in terms of the thickness of the meat, the excess amount of fat on the bird and the flavours, or lack of. After a simple roasting this bird did not have the depth or concentration in my experience of a kampung chicken, or a free-range or organic chicken for that matter.
I travel to Ipoh, Malaysia regularly to visit relatives and I can tell you, the kampung chickens I eat there are quite different in texture and taste.
This prompted me to contact the AVA enquiring on the regulations of importing chicken including specific questions on free-range and organic chickens. I have transcribed my communications and the answers from the AVA, interspersed with my comments.
Question 1: “I have made enquiries with a local butcher whom informs me that their chickens are free range from Malaysia. Is there any certification process or guidelines for free-range or organically reared chickens that can support this claim?
AVA’s answer: “AVA requires farms exporting live poultry to Singapore to be accredited. Accredited farms must comply with our conditions for bio-security and good farm management to safeguard animal health and food safety. Currently, AVA does not have certification guidelines for free range or organically reared chickens.”
In other words, live or freshly slaughtered free-range or organically reared chickens are technically not allowed in to Singapore. Or is there a grey area here where accredited suppliers of kampung chickens, purporting them to be free-range, do so ‘word-of-mouth’.
The reality is these so-called kampung chickens are not free-range birds although some are farmed in enclosed pens (not cages) and thus do get some exercise however, this is hardly what international standards regard as ‘free-range’.
Certainly the name kampung (kampong) used in labelling is somewhat misleading, particularly in supermarkets and will assuredly be intensive-farmed, caged-reared chicken. And even if your wet market stall looks convincingly wholesome and insists they are kampung chickens, it merely is an association to its distant relative and little to do with healthy, organic-feed, free-range chicken.
Clearly, the AVA needs re-evaluate the import regulations of chilled free-range and organic poultry. Even if it means the consumer pays a premium, there should be a choice. And what price do we put on our health moreover, our children’s future health?
Question 2: What is the position of the AVA in regards to Avian Flu and free range rearing of poultry? E.g. is there an issue or ban on free range poultry?
2) AVA’s answer: “In view of the threat of avian flu virus infection in humans, the country or region must be free of the disease before it is allowed by AVA to export live chickens or raw poultry meat to Singapore. The farms must also have proper bio-security such as complete fencing, bird-proofing and disinfection facility among others.”
Whilst one can appreciate the AVA being vigilant in this regard, this is a distortion of the threat to humans. More worrying, it would appear that the methodology and overall ideology of free-range poultry is deemed questionable in the AVA’s view due to the issues of bird flu.
In the UK and France there have been limited outbreaks of avian influenza (H5N1) in wild birds and poultry. However, farmers have continued to free-range with no issues of the disease taking hold. To the contrary, they are struggling to meet worldwide demand and moreover there is substantial evidence that the significantly stronger immune systems of organic and free-range chickens has proven to be a defence against bird flu whereas the rapid spread of infectious diseases in intensive-farmed poultry in many countries, particularly in Asia, has been a significant problem.
Given that chicken is a staple here, you would think it prudent that Singapore (AVA) look towards countries like Australia and New Zealand as a safe source of poultry and strategic contingency plan in the event the surrounding high-risk regions (Malaysia, Indonesia and China) became incapacitated by a major outbreak of avian influenza (H5N1).
For a start, Australia and New Zealand have had no outbreaks of avian influenza (H5N1). Australia had five minor outbreaks of avian influenza H7 subtype between 1976 and 1997 although, none was caused by the (H5N1) and all were successfully eradicated. None of the outbreaks originated from migratory birds and the risk of avian influenza (H5N1) spreading to Australia and New Zealand remains very low.
Ideally, in terms of food miles, there should be a rethink on the parameters and potential of free-range farming of poultry in neighbouring Johor, Malaysia, with poultry farms encouraged adopting free-range, organic methods.
Question 3: It would appear to me that it is prohibitive to import fresh poultry, as opposed to frozen, from countries such as New Zealand and Australia, and yet this is a very good source of high quality, organic and free range poultry with the hygiene and farming standards of both countries impeccably high, and yet there none available on the market. Would you please comment on this?
AVA’s answer: “Chilled (fresh) poultry is inherently a high-risk food product associated with certain food-borne bacterial pathogens. AVA does not allow the import of chilled poultry even if it is derived from organic free range chickens as AVA could not hold-and-test the product due to its short shelf-life.”
Surely the AVA does not doubt the health regulations and hygiene standards of Australian and New Zealand and questioning the standards and practices during the slaughter and post-slaughter handling of poultry?
Requiring the abattoir to be approved by the AVA seems straightforward enough and one would think that the meticulous and rigidly-upheld standards in countries like New Zealand and Australia would be more than sufficient, and technologically advanced, to meet the most stringent of Singapore’s criteria.
Given their proximity, Australia and New Zealand export freshly-chilled free-range and organic poultry to many other Asian countries without incident and with complete consumer acceptance. Singapore also has proven facilities to handle all types of fresh, chilled produce. Indeed, as I understand it, there are new facilities at Changi that are touted as the best, most efficient in the region.
As a comparison, when we lived in Hong Kong a few years ago, we enjoyed a plentiful supply of freshly-chilled, flavoursome free-range birds including chickens, duck, goose, spatchcock, squab pigeon, quail and turkey from all over the world and particularly France, Australia and New Zealand.
One of our favourite treats was the sublime Poulet de Breese from Vonnas, France which sometimes even arrived complete with feathers on! We would wait until they neared the end of their shelf-life as they were all the better from this airing-maturing period moreover, marked down in price to clear.
We also regularly dined on sumptuous, relatively affordable free-range chickens from Lilydale Farms, based in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia. Quail from New Zealand was invariably part of our BBQ repertoire and the organic free-range turkey from France on the Christmas table was obligatory.
Emphasizing the point, none of these birds were frozen and clearly there are no logistical problems or health standard issues or barriers in supplying freshly-chilled poultry in Hong Kong. Furthermore, the access to such a varied, high-quality source of poultry and a wide variety of fresh produce for that matter is the mainstay of Hong Kong’s renowned dining scene, giving chefs and restaurateurs a pivotal advantage over Singapore.
We all know Hong Kong and Singapore are perpetually competing with each other in practically every regard. However, the contest in the food and dining stakes is not only vital to both countries tourism and economies, but a debate that is a nationalistic sport and the gloves are off, only the Singapore chefs are fighting with one arm behind their back with some of the best produce in the world right on their doorstop, yet denied access.
I asked Ignatius Chan, founder of Singapore’s highly regarded restaurant Iggy’s, voted by the public as Asia’s Number One restaurant in 2009 and Number Two in this year’s Miele Guide, his thoughts on the supply of chicken in Singapore.
He put it succinctly, “We do not have chicken on the menu at Iggy’s as we simply cannot source any that meet the quality and integrity standards we have at Iggy’s”.
A compelling statement and one that I am sure will be echoed by the recent influx of international celebrity chefs to Singapore such as Luke Mangan, Tetsuya Wakuda, Guy Savoy, Daniel Boulud, and Wolfgang Puck to mention a few. Someone will have to explain to them why they can only cook with battery-raised chickens and frozen poultry.
A ray of hope – Kami Sakura Chicken
The recent introduction of the Kami Sakura Chicken in Singapore through Kee Song Brothers Poultry Industries is of significant importance and whilst not organic in the strictest sense, does enjoy a Japanese-invented specially formulated organic feed and healthy antibiotic-free diet with no preservatives or residual pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Whilst not strictly free-range in the sense of outdoor feeding on all those wonderfully wholesome grubs, insects and grass, Sakura Chickens are raised in a clean, controlled environment with open air space where the birds can roam about; a little fresh air, exercise and vitamin D inducing sunshine goes a long way!
It is the lactobacillus diet of the Sakura Chicken that is innovative. Essentially a fermented natural feed drawing on similar ideologies of silage (anaerobic fermentation of field crops) used for cows, containing friendly bacteria combating harmful bacteria, thus strengthening the birds immune system without the need for antibiotics.
Being a relatively smaller bird averaging around 1.2 kilograms and grown at a natural pace reaching full development around 60 days (as opposed to 36 days for many intensive-farmed birds), Sakura Chicken’s nutritionally and environmentally healthy disposition results in higher levels of amino acids particularly glutamine, a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid that crosses the blood-brain barrier – you could say brain food – as well as boosting digestive enzymes and aiding immune functions.
There are also significantly higher levels of tryptophan in Sakura Chickens, an essential amino acid, essential meaning it is essential to humans existence and is not synthesized by the body, therefore must be acquired through ones diet. Tryptophan is also vital to the process of cells building protein and dietary proteins as well as another ‘brain-food’ being a precursor in producing serotonin.
I think we can all relate to the restorative attributes of chicken soup, mandatory in illness or recovering from surgery, as well as the overall low-fat dietary advantages of chicken. And yet, many are blasé about the quality of the bird itself moreover, averse to paying for quality and a healthier, tastier chicken.
Of equal importance, they are farmed in Malaysia, thus eliminating costly air-freighting and reducing the all-important carbon footprint, notwithstanding delivery a high-quality, tasty chicken at a very reasonable price of S$8.60 through NTUC Supermarkets for a bird weighing an average of 1.2 kilograms. This is incredibly good value when you consider this will feed two adults and a young children amply.
Sakura Chickens are also starting to appear at Singapore’s wet markets and a few chicken rice stalls although surprisingly, yet to appear on the menu’s of fine dining establishments. Trade enquiries should be directed to Kee Song Brothers Poultry Industries www.keesong.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Now that you are assuredly convinced you should be eating Sakura Chicken, you should be asking your favourite restaurants to have then on the menu as well, and why not Sakura chicken rice!
I had Singapore’s award-winning chef Yong Bing Ngen from Majestic www.newmajestichotel.com and Jing restaurant www.jing.sg over for lunch, introducing him to Sakura Chicken and impressing him with my skills in cooking a Malaysian favourite, chicken cooked in rock salt. Admittedly, this is a recipe I have learnt from my mother-in-law in Ipoh however I roped him in to do the carving, which he executed with commendable skill.
He was even more impressed with the quality of the chicken, and I am hoping this will be featured in both restaurants. My next mission is to have a cooking and taste test with Ignatius Chan and Tetsuya Wakuda… to be continued.