Taking Flight: How The Chickens Of Hong Kong Are Going From Home Kitchens To Michelin-Starred Menus
In Hong Kong’s folk religion, to which most of the city’s temples are dedicated, whole chickens are presented as a gift to the gods, especially on special occasions such as the beginning and end of the lunar year. After they’re used in ceremonies, they’re eaten—it’s traditions like these that cement the chicken’s key role on dinner tables, especially festive ones.
Hong Kong diners prefer live birds, says David Lai, chef and owner of Neighborhood restaurant, known for using local chicken for their whole-bird sharing dishes such as salt-baked chicken. “The chicken we get are freshly slaughtered each morning and delivered to our restaurant in the afternoon,” he says.
Hongkongers’ preference for live chicken likely stems from the fact that poultry were often kept as domestic animals and easy to come by, as well as the Cantonese obsession with fresh produce in general.
Freshness is the key
“Fresh is always best and that’s what Cantonese ingredients are all about, especially when it comes to chicken,” says Matt Abergel, co-owner and executive chef of yakitori stalwart Yardbird, who has used local chicken since Yardbird’s genesis. He says, “When I came to Hong Kong 11 years ago, the city had a somewhat self-deprecating sense of food culture. It never made sense to me to not use local birds. I’ve always had the ability to not really care about people’s opinions and to me, it seemed like foreign chefs were using imported ingredients not necessarily because they were better, but because they were afraid that it would seem like they were serving an inferior product if it was local. Also, the fact that there is complete transparency in how fresh the birds are—killed today, used today—which is impossible when you use imported birds.”
For years, Hong Kong had been importing live chickens from Mainland China to supplement supply from local farms—in wet markets across the city, you would have been able to find live birds in abundance. 1997 was when it all changed, when the first bout of avian flu struck. Live imports from the mainland were gradually reduced, and by 2016, it came to a complete stop.
These days, all of Hong Kong’s live chickens (more than four million annually) are local. The scarcity has made live chickens a luxury. The higher prices people are willing to pay for fresh chicken have encouraged local breeders and farmers to offer better quality birds and work on premium breeds that meet the needs of consumers and chefs.
One such breed is Ping Yuen chicken, developed by Hong Kong Kelang Modern Agriculture, a major player in the poultry business in the city, with a network of farms providing over 75% of Hong Kong’s day-old chicks, as well as working on immunology, chicken feed, raising chicken and more. Director KC Ho says, “Ping Yuen chickens are part of a premium line that are bred to appeal to chefs."
Spoilt For Choice
Restaurants such as Lai’s Neighborhood, Zest by Konishi, Man Ho and Deng G use Ping Yuen, which takes its name from the river in the northern New Territories beside which the birds are raised. Ping Yuen chickens have “a bouncy resiliency,” says Lai. “It is not too tough and so is forgiving for most preparations”.
The company has developed birds with vastly different qualities to suit different cooking techniques and flavour profiles—their Empress chickens, for example, are a leaner breed similar to free-range chickens (although in Hong Kong they can’t be free-range due to hygiene requirements), and the Snow Phoenix is a type of silkie chicken, with white feathers, but black skin, bones, organs and meat, which is perceived in Traditional Chinese Medicine to be hugely restorative, says Ho.
Among their network is the farm that specialises in Tai On chicken, a cross between Shiqi and Huizhou breeds known for its meatiness and fine texture. Although the brand name is relatively new (it was registered as Tai On in 2003), it was, in fact, developed in Hong Kong the 1950s.
Skin, Fat, Flavour, Meat
At Yardbird, Abergel uses triple yellow chickens—a transliteration of their Cantonese moniker saam wong gai—which are named for their triumvirate of yellow features: skin, feet and beak. “Our chickens come from multiple farms in the New Territories,” he says. “We buy them through Hop Wo Poultry in the Sheung Wan market. Ivan and his father choose the best female, triple yellow chickens and freshly kill them for us every morning.” He prefers them for their “intramuscular fat, the thick skin, the density of the meat, and the incredible flavour.”
Another chicken known for its higher fat percentage is Longgang chicken (sometimes called Lung Kong, or Long Guang), named after the village in Shenzhen where the breed is said to have originated. Like triple yellow chickens, Longgang chickens are another long-time wet market favourite. Thanks to its signature layer of fat below the skin that helps retain the bird’s juices, chefs favour it for deep-fried preparations—take for instance, the crispy-skinned bird at Yan Toh Heen, or the stuffed chicken wing at Ta Vie. At SOMM, however, it’s poached and served with albufera, the fattiness of the skin melding seamlessly with the creamy veloute-based sauce.
Where fat isn’t desired, there’s another relatively new local breed that perhaps kickstarted Hong Kong’s chicken breeding (and branding) frenzy—the Ka Mei chicken, developed by the Kadoorie Centre at the University of Hong Kong. Ka Mei came from a project to document Chinese chicken breeds, and is the result of cross-breeding eight distinct breeds. It’s high in protein, with less fat under the skin, meaty breasts and a rich chicken flavour. At Chicken Bar, where it’s used in everything from the battered Southern-style whole fried chicken to the sandwiches, it’s marinated in whey and rice koji (the fungus used in sake making), and hung to age for a day to air-dry the skin.
Think of a chicken dish, and Hong Kong’s farms will likely have the right breed for you. Next time someone says “it tastes like chicken” you can ask, “which kind?”
- PhotographyAmanda Kho for Tatler Hong Kong
- StylingVivian Cheng