Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Even chicken has a dark side
American fast food companies prefer bland, white chicken meat, but do you know why it’s the leg that Indians like?
When it comes to chicken do you like your meat white or dark? It is a question that will puzzle many of us in India. (Isn’t all chicken white meat, we may ask.) And it only makes sense to us if we frame it differently: breast or leg? This is sometimes regarded as a politically incorrect description so the white vs. dark distinction is more widely used in America.
Contrary to what many of us think, chicken is not just white meat. The meat around the breast is certainly white but the leg and thigh have darker meat. This has obvious, if slightly confusing, implications. Leg meat has more fat and therefore more calories. So, one way of looking at it is to claim that breast is healthier.
Except that the white meat is much less flavourful so unless you say, poach it, the health advantages are negated by the things chefs do to make it tastier: serve it with a sauce, fry it, etc. By the time the white meat reaches your plate, the chances are that it will have gained fat and calories.
The reason why the white vs. dark chicken meat distinction has never become as much of an issue in India as it is in the US (where the HT’s former editor Bobby Ghosh has been extolling the virtues of dark meat on social media) is because, most times, we don’t have to choose.
When we buy chicken, we usually buy the whole bird and cook it in a curry. There will be those who will prefer a leg piece and those who won’t, but it is not a big deal. It’s the same with a restaurant dish. Order a tandoori chicken and you will get the whole fowl, leaving you to decide which bit you want to try first.
However, if you ask Indian chefs which bit of the chicken they prefer, they are unanimous that the real flavour is in the leg. And indeed, when we do make dishes that use only a part of the chicken, we usually go with the leg. It is not just the tangri kebab. A good chef will use leg meat for chicken tikka or even chicken 65.
The breast is nobody’s first choice. When chefs do use the white meat, they use it for dishes where other flavours have to be incorporated into the meat. I asked Rajdeep Kapoor, Executive Chef of Delhi’s ITC Maurya, who said that he would only use the white meat for say, a Reshmi kebab or a dish that required minced chicken. The usage at the Maurya’s kitchen (where tandoori chicken items from Bukhara must account for a large part of the food consumed) is something like three quarters dark chicken meat and only a quarter or so of white meat.
In the US, on the other hand, it is white meat that has dominated. This could be because it is much easier to buy pre-packaged chicken cuts, with white and dark meat sold separately at American supermarkets Secondly, consumers have bought into the health argument which says that white meat is healthier than dark. And third, the large fast food chains seem predisposed towards white meat.
Why do they like white meat? Well, the official reason is that white meat is healthier but there is another factor: the fast food industry needs millions of units of chicken pieces and chicken breast is easier to cut than chicken thigh.
The consequence of all this is that the demand for white meat is so much greater in the US that dark chicken meat is actually sold for less even though it is the meat that chefs prefer.
And then there is the Buffalo chicken wings factor. When I first heard of Buffalo wings, I wondered how they had found flying buffaloes. (I exaggerate but only slightly.) In fact, the dish is named after the city of Buffalo, where it was invented. It has now become such a global rage that sales of chicken wings have reached new heights and prices have rocketed.
The chicken wing is white meat but it is covered with so much fat that no health benefits can be claimed for it. Its popularity makes a mockery of the claims made for all white chicken meat and some fast food chains are now looking at dark meat again. Overall, prices of dark meat are rising.
Nobody in the fast food industry wants to talk about this openly but many of its chicken products (nuggets, breaded burger patties, etc.) are often not made from pieces of chicken at all. Unkind critics may say that, like cheap sausages, they are made from the sweepings of abattoirs. The industrial process used to make them requires the mechanical extraction of every bit of meat from the less attractive parts of the chicken. These scraps of chicken are minced and then shaped into flat patties (for burgers, etc.) or balls (for nuggets). In these circumstances, the distinction between white or dark hardly seems to matter.
But there is one other dish where it does matter: the fried chicken sandwich, which is not a big deal in India, but which sustains such US chains such as Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. Though KFC and other fried chicken operations use a mixture of leg and breast meat, most restaurant fried chicken sandwiches are still made with white meat in America.
One reason could be that the fried chicken in the sandwich is descended from a European tradition where escalopes, schnitzel., etc. are made from breast meat that is pounded and flattened to make a flat piece of chicken. This is easier to do with the breast than the thigh and so, has become the default recipe.
But the better fried chicken sandwiches are still made with dark meat. It is the proper chefs, rather than the fast food operators, who do it best. For example, Jatin Mallick, of Delhi’s Tres does a chicken sandwich but takes care to call it a Crispy Chicken Leg Burger because the point of the dish is the taste of dark chicken meat. Jatin says he will use white chicken meat for a salad but for other dishes, it is always the leg for him.
I asked Rajdeep Kapoor if he thought Indians ever preferred white chicken meat. He concluded that the answer was ‘very rarely’ because we don’t usually have anything like a chicken salad as part of our cuisine. Nor do we have many fried chicken dishes. Rajdeep and I thought and thought but neither of us could come up with an Indian version of a schnitzel. We may pound meat into thin flat pieces for a mutton pasanda but we don’t treat chicken the same way.
Could this be because Indians actually like the flavour of chicken and don’t just treat it as a bland white meat? Dev Lall is one of the most knowledgeable people I know in the food business with global experience. His view is that as the chicken industry has grown in America, consumers have become used to the pre-cut, pre-packaged form of bland chicken that the poultry giants sell. In India, on the other hand, cold chain problems mean that while the big chicken companies supply to the restaurant trade, the chicken you get at your butcher is probably relatively fresh, local and free range. This means that it often has more flavour than the chicken you get at restaurants.
Lall says that even America is moving away from bland, packaged chicken pieces. One of the fastest growing products at supermarkets. Is the rotisserie chicken, a whole chicken that has been roasted. Rotisserie chickens don’t have the flavour of say, Bresse chicken for obvious reasons but they are a step up from the old-style chunks of rubber chicken.
As the shift towards chicken meat with flavour grows in America, Indians can take pride in the fact that we always liked the dark meat. After all, who has not heard the old Punjabi invitation, “Come over for leg and peg”?
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, May 30, 2021
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch