Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Chai Chaowasaree's soup made with a black silkie chicken includes a wing-quarter of the bird. In the background is an uncooked chicken, with head.

Bye, bye black bird

White meat or dark? When you
serve up a black-fleshed silkie
chicken, you don't have a choice

By Betty Shimabukuro

Ever notice that people try to get you to taste strange, new foods by saying, "C'mon, it tastes just like chicken"?

Frog legs come to mind.

"Well, if that's the case," say the unadventurous, glaring suspiciously at the frog legs, "I'll just take the chicken."

OK, well, today we ask you to open your mind. The strange, new food we'd like you to meet really does taste like chicken.

It is a chicken. A black chicken.

Not black as in black feathers alone. Black as in black skin, black bones, black meat.

"I think when people see black chicken they'll freak out," says chef Chai Chaowasaree, explaining why he's hesitant to put in on his menu, even though he's been experimenting with the dark bird for himself. "But for me, it's easier to eat than broccoli."

The silkie chicken -- that's its official name -- is actually only strange and new from a homogenized, America-centic point of view. It's been around for generations, renowned for healing properties throughout Asia. Chaowasaree remembers his father and grandfather preparing soup with black chickens in his native Thailand.

They're also occasionally used in French and British cooking.

The silkie chicken above is among a flock of six kept at the children's section of the Honolulu Zoo. The breed is known for its fluffy feathers.

In Hawaii, black chickens seem a delicacy of past generations, but they are available in some Chinatown stores and at 99 Ranch Market, where meat department manager Simeon Domingo says they've been in stock since the store opened in 1989. He says he orders about 15 cases every two weeks, 12 chickens per case, and sells them fairly steadily, mostly to Chinese customers.

It is a very distinctive bird. Thanks to a recessive gene, the silkie has an extra toe -- five instead of the usual four found on a standard chicken foot -- and it has fluffy "barbless" feathers, as opposed to the usual sleek chicken feather. The feathers may be black or white; the earlobes, interestingly enough, are turquoise.

"It has a real high cute factor," says Francine Bradley, a poultry specialist in the Avian Sciences Department of the University of California, Davis.

"Scientists in the Middle Ages thought they were a cross between a chicken and a rabbit," mistaking the soft, downy feathers for fur, Bradley says.

The breed most likely came about through a natural mutation, she says, and was domesticated early. It would have needed human protection to survive -- those fluffy feathers mean it cannot fly and would have been unable to escape predators. Some scholars believe the chickens may have been raised in Asia for sacrificial purposes, Bradley says.

Ginseng, ginger, garlic and peppercorns give a spicy depth to a black chicken soup.

The earliest reference she's found in Western literature is a notation credited to Marco Polo in 1298, who described seeing "hens with hair like cats" in China.

Plucked of its feathers, the silkie goes from extremely cute to extremely bizarre. It is a deep charcoal color from top to bottom, beak to toenails -- and inside-out, from skin to bones. The cooked meat is gray with black streaks. Sliced, it resembles oysters, or large mushrooms.

The meat is very lean, not at all gamy and is normally served in soups or stews.

In the United States, the chickens are commonly raised as show birds or pets because of their unique look. They are also grown for eating in areas with large Asian populations, often by squab farmers.

Stuart Helfand of Stuart's Farm Fresh in Sacramento, Calif., says he sells about 100 live silkies per week to retailers in San Francisco's Chinatown. They are smaller and grow slower than regular chickens, taking 16 weeks to reach 1-1/2 pounds, compared to normal chickens that can grow to three times that size in just six weeks. A silkie's eggs don't hatch as well, Helfand says, which adds to the cost (at 99 Ranch, a 2-pound black chicken, head and feet included, sells for about $8).

Helfand has been raising silkies for 20 years. "They're just a neat-looking bird," he says. "I was looking for something that everybody and their grandmother doesn't grow."

The silkies sold in Hawaii come frozen from Canada. Bradley says production north of the border increased greatly when Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese control and many former citizens moved to Vancouver.

The demand is based on health claims. "There have been many therapeutic medicinal attributes associated with the meat, broth from the meat and eggs from the silkies," Bradley says, although she knows of no substantiating research, at least not in North America.

"But so many beliefs that have a long cultural tradition usually have a part that is factual," she says. "They wouldn't have been passed on for so many years if they had no merit."

Chin Lee, dairy specialist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, raised the chickens as a child, on his family's backyard farm in Malaysia. He says they were popular for use in herbal soups, believed to have the power to nourish, strengthen and cleanse the body. "They fetched a pretty good price."

He never noticed the benefits himself, "but that's what Mom thinks." (Lee notes, by the way, that he saw a silkie on an episode of "Iron Chef," used by the challenger in a carrot soup.)

He describes the chickens as "beautiful animals" and good pets. "Compared to other chickens, they just look spectacular."

Chaowasaree says extracting the full benefit from a black chicken requires long, slow cooking. His method is similar to poaching, letting the chicken sit immersed in liquid over very low heat.

"You don't want to rush the heat, you want all the nutrition to come out slowly, slowly, slowly."

He makes soup using ginseng, ginger and garlic, also believed to have healing qualities and which lend the broth a peppery flavor. Don't bother peeling the ginseng or ginger, he says, and use whole heads of garlic, leaving the paper skins in place.

If you'd rather have someone else handle the chicken, chef Jean Marie Josselin prepares black chicken soup at A Pacific Cafe on Kauai, but only in the winter, when it's popular with people battling colds. He uses ginseng, licorice and Chinese mushroom.

Josselin says he discovered the chickens in Chinatown about 10 years ago. He likes the taste, he says, finding the meat so low in fat that the soup is never greasy.

Black Chicken Soup

Chef Chai Chaowasaree

1 silkie chicken (about 2 pounds), whole or halved
3 thumb-sized pieces ginseng root
6-1/4 cups water
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, smashed
2 large heads garlic, halved
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
Salt or soy sauce to taste
5 dried figs
Sliced green onion for garnish

Cut chicken in half if necessary to fit pot; otherwise leave whole. Soak ginseng in water 1 hour.

Place ginseng and its soaking water in pot; add chicken, ginger, garlic, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and skim impurities. Reduce heat to a very low simmer (no bubbling at all) and cook until chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, 2 to 4 hours. Or cook in a crock pot on low heat, about 6 hours. In last hour of cooking, add figs.

Strain soup and debone chicken if desired, or serve with root pieces. Garnish with green onion.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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