Saturday, October 15, 2005

Going organic and chicken tales

Well, cousin has flown in again to attend classes as part of her PhD programme. She looked at the stuff we have in the fridge.

'Wah, you're buying all organic now.'

My reply was, 'You know, in my mother's time, everything we bought was organic. Then they brought in intensive farming. And now we are paying a premium for "organic".'

While we were both growing up in Singapore we could drive down fairly main thoroughfares and catch a whiff of organic manure. (I am thinking of Potong Pasir and Braddell Road.) There were vegetable farms and pig farms where now high-rise flats are standing. Fruit and vegetables were plentiful and not too expensive. Meat was dearer. Chicken was only for celebrations.

I remember my sisters having a school reunion in our little flat. Can't imagine how brave they were to even think of that. They gathered a group of school friends from primary school and they partied in our tiny little two-bedroom flat in Queenstown. The highlight of the menu: fried chicken wings.

It was the epitome of sophistication then to have chicken wings on one's menu. Pork and fish were everyday meats. The innards of pig -- liver, kidneys, intestines, stomach, etc -- were also used in everyday cooking. But chicken, it was only for special occasions.

My family was a bit different. Because my father sold pork in a 'wet market' and Mum and Dad were devout Chinese religionists, Dad always bought a whole chicken for the 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar. The chicken was cooked with watercress which turned it into a tasty but slightly bitter soup, and the chicken was then 'presented' to the Chinese gods as an offering.

After the ceremonial bit Mum chopped up the chicken with her trusty cleaver on the huge wooden chopping board on the kitchen floor, and we ate it. Whatever chicken was left was braised in soya sauce the following day for another meal.

Chicken is plentiful and every where now, as we know. Why? We've seen those pictures of chicken battery farms where thousands of chickens are reared in a space scarcely large enough for them to stand in. Why are such chickens susceptible to disease? If you pack any living organisms -- chicken, goats, cows, human beings -- in a small space, eating and sleeping in their own poo, isn't it inevitable that when one catches an infectious disease, the others would have little escape? Wasn't that how huge human populations were wiped out in epidemics of any time?
Is avian flu a threat? Of course it is. Is it preventable? Of course it was.

British friends tell me that like us in Singapore, chicken was an expensive meat. Pork and beef were eaten every day, but chicken was special.

Even then, only chicken breast was eaten. My hypothesis is that the Brits never ate any bit of any animal that they could not cut and pick up neatly with a knife and fork. But chicken wings, drumsticks, and even chicken feet have now crept into our ordinary culinary experience. (Think of pizza outlets and a certain colonel who's supposed to have a special recipe for cooking chicken.)
A Chinese acquaintance from Hong Kong is convinced that it was the Hong Kong Chinese who taught the white men how to eat chicken wings. O! The joys of eating with one's fingers and chewing the crunchy cartilage on the joints of chicken! With the Chinese, no part of the chicken was wasted, right down to the boney chicken wing tips and feet (which they call 'Phoenix claws' or 'fung jao'). These are boiled to make tasty stock or enjoyed on its own as a gelatinous treat dipped in a nice sauce or rice wine -- but only if you know how to spit out the tiny bones with some finesse!

As usual, I've drifted, but I'm allowed to do that in a blog. 'Organic' was the standard and only type of agriculture when I was growing up. Then someone came along and told us using animal manure was dirty and unhygienic and we were prone to catching horrible diseases and we needed to clean up our act. Was that 'someone' involved in providing 'cleaner' alternatives?

'Cleaner' as a result of feeding animals substitutes eventually meant cheaper. But 'cheaper' came with poor animal welfare, indiscriminate use of antibiotics, and a new generation of human beings that seems to be susceptible to allergies of all sorts.

What about fruit and vegetables? Pesticides and chemical fertilizers replaced the organic manure that had served previous generations well. These chemicals cannot be washed away. They merely seep into the soil, into the water, which then gets into our bodies. Any wonder that the incidence of cancer and other similar diseases has rocketed?

And now it is so much more expensive to buy organic.

Back to Organic-Ally.

No comments: