Eat this ...

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am

Pegged as one of Hong Kong's sunset industries, poultry farming has played an important part in feeding the city's population since local commercial farming diversified from opium growing at the end of the 19th century. Its contribution has not been in volume (local farms produce enough for only 20 per cent of the population's needs), but in sustaining the practice of buying live chicken for a home-cooked meal.

'Chicken is an inherent part of Cantonese cuisine,' says Margaret Xu Yuan, chef and owner of Yin Yang, an artisanal eatery in Wan Chai. 'What [eaters] seek is freshness, and what the Chinese call 'chicken flavour' - it's what you won't find in Kentucky Fried Chicken. You don't even get that in a Bresse chicken [a breed from the French province of the same name].'

Xu prefers hand-picking her corn-fed chicken from tried-and-true local sources. 'I buy directly from farms in Yuen Long. I've bought enough to know what breed it is and what it is fed on.'

This practice, along with that of buying livestock from the market, may soon disappear. With last month's 21-day ban on the sale of live poultry, and current regulations barring retailers from stocking live chickens overnight, it seems the government's pragmatism is winning over the public's attachment to buying the squawking birds.

If the live trade perishes, Hong Kong's small farming community will have to change, but Xu will continue to be a champion of their profession. 'Should the local industry become smaller, and prices higher, I'd still continue to buy from our farmers, unless the quality deteriorates,' says Xu.

As far as pedigree is concerned, two breeds stand out. The Ka Mei breed is known for its resilient health and leanness. The Hong Po chicken has black feet like the Bresse and is known for its high quality. These two breeds were purchased and branded by Hong Kong Hi-tech Poultry Development, which outsourced production to four farms, introducing the stock to consumers in 2002 through affiliated company Vital Health Livestock Development (VHLD).

'We wanted to regulate each part of the chain, from breeding to wholesale and retail,' says the director of VHLD, Kwok Ming-chung. 'The market whims and prices fluctuate so much - day to day, hour to hour. By regulating production and selling, we can guarantee income for our farmers and stock for our vendors. There's a level of quantity and quality control. We are just getting ready to weather the storm.'

Xu sees the issue as one of cutting off your nose to spite your face. 'We have a predominantly Cantonese diet in Hong Kong and most families live off fresh chicken. If bird flu is a problem, we should set stricter rules on the farms instead of cutting them off altogether. Restaurants should get together and raise these issues with the government.'