The World Digested
Everything Tastes Like Chicken
“What’s the matter? Where’re you going? You, chicken! That’s it, isn’t it—Nothing but a little chicken!”
Marty’s body stiffens, his eyes widen, then he slowly turns.
"Nobody calls me chicken!"
Marty McFly had a problem—he could not bear to be called a chicken. Had he have not had that little problem, George would not have got Lorraine, and there would have been no Marty and no Back to the Future Part II. That little “chicken” problem was not so little then as it could have changed the face of American pop culture, and the world would not have been the same.
No just Marty, though. No one likes to be called a chicken, let alone be one. We would like to be lions, tigers, giants and dragons, as evidenced by the coat of arms and the names of sports teams. While there are the occasional swallows and carps—both baseball teams in Japan—no family or team has ever been so fardeigned to claim chicken as their guardian angel. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken hails to Colonel Sanders, and Chicken-McNugget-chucking children corner around Ronald McDonald (aka Donald in Japan).
We do not like to be chickens, but we surely like to eat them. As a matter of fact, we eat a lot of them, so much so that chicken has become our parameter of defining taste. The avian species, grudgingly granted, do have somewhat similar taste profiles since they naturally share many traits born out of common ancestry, habits and habitat. Therefore, pheasant and turkey certainly feel and chew like chicken; and based on hearsay, so do crane and peacock. However, for lack of better words or better taste buds, the chicken simile is extrapolated even to species beyond the avian family so that frogs are just a little bonier version of chicken; the rabbit just a bit dryer; and the alligators just a tad tougher. Moreover, even the more exotic snake and turtle are said to “taste just like chicken.”
And what does this chicken taste like? Gushing her love for chicken breasts, an aspiring lawyer-to-be once proclaimed, “I like chicken because it doesn’t really taste like anything.”
What it comes down to then is this sad little syllogism:
Everything tastes like chicken.
Chicken does not taste like anything.
Ergo, everything does not taste like anything.
What would Aristotle say to that?
Perhaps it is a language issue. The French and the Chinese do not describe everything in relation to chicken, although the bad habit seems to have been picked up by the Japanese. Language is a tool of communication, a reflection of culture—and what is a culture, if it does not have a cuisine? A civilization may rise and fall, a country may be formed and destroyed, but people will continue to eat and to cook. Any country rich with history, heritage, legacy is necessarily also rich with luscious sauces, decorative dressings and rare delicacies—to please the finicky royals, emperors and kings and queens. Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, those aristocrats masquerading and marauding around in velvet and organza eating a piece of bare bread. Bland cooking breeds bland culture, and bland culture bland language—and then bland country where everything tastes like chicken, or nothing at all.
However, there is an exception to the general rule (which does not prove the rule—go read Karl Popper) because there is one country, which stands alone and aloof—an empire where the sun once never set (past tense), a great kingdom facing a different kind of sunset (or sunrise, depending on one’s take on Brexit) and one of the two monarchies that still has a queen—where else but the United Kingdom.
The UK certainly has many positive attributes: Queen (and the Queen), Sherlock Holmes (the novel), Dr. Martens (and Doc Martin), the Saville Row and the Abbey Road. Nevertheless, when it comes to food, the stigma of the world’s premier bad food nation is hard to eradicate. The image of horror seems to stay stymied in the world of Mr. Charles Dickens and Mrs. Beeton in which over-boiling and under-salting remain to be the modi operandi.
The best part of British food seems to be the English Breakfast—in the tea and the fry-up. The former for its formidable strength in conquering minerals in water and the occasional hangover; the latter—well, the same and some more. Perhaps that is why they end up drinking tea well into the afternoon, formalized in the “afternoon tea,” and they even finish the day with “tea”—which other nations with proper meals refer to as “dinner.” For tea, the English waged wars and colonized the world; for tea, they would go above and beyond to slice the bread paper-thin. Stimulated by the caffeine perhaps, tea was followed by fiery spices and exotic flavors.
The spices eventually found chicken, which was formerly considered “elite” white meat, and the mélange was so successful that it was first crowned in 1935—George V’s Jubilee Chicken—then more famously in 1953—the Coronation Chicken—and again in 2002—the Golden Jubilee Chicken—and again in 2012—the Diamond Jubilee Chicken. Born also was another brand of spicy chicken on the other side of the Great Britain in the form of “chicken tikka masala,” otherwise known as “butter chicken”—which has, since its invention, trumped the curried chicken salad. For a country historically indifferent to cooking, there appears to be quite an obsession regarding the spicy chicken.
And spicy chicken it is—even in 2019. Chicken has become common: on average, 2.2 million chickens are consumed per dayin the UK alone. Broiler-bred with big breasts and fat thighs, these birds, although never good at flying, are quite good in the fryers. Gone are the pheasant, partridge and goose—Chicken is the king. Walk into any restaurant in London, there will be chicken on the menu—tandoori chicken, grilled chicken, roasted chicken, jerk chicken, BBQ chicken, chicken in green curry, chicken chow mein, chicken teriyaki and kung pao chicken. Chicken everywhere, chicken anywhere—and these chickens are often spicy and red hot with sriracha, tabasco, hot sauce, chili peppers, Sichuan peppers, cayenne peppers, green peppers, jerk mix, harissa, ras-el hanout, peri-peri and berber seasoning.
With the immigrants, flavor and cooking technique have also migrated to London. Take the juicy joojeh at Kateh, a Persian restaurant in Little Venice. Glowing with gorgeous saffron yellow, the cubed meat is soft and succulent. Yogurt, lemon juice and onion have gone to work in the long marinade so that the nightmare of a dry chicken breast will never happen to the diners at Kateh. Not only chicken, but other dishes are also well cooked in the traditional Persian way, melding herbs and spices in an intricate arabesque, albeit modernized into a lighter art nouveau, so that the fish stew is aromatic without being heavy, the lamb kebab torsh is rich with walnuts but enlivened by pomegranate and mint.
Not too far away, geographically and culturally, Retsina—a Greek restaurant in Hampstead—also serves up delectable chicken—the charred chicken souvla. Souvla, not to be confused with Souvlaki, is traditionally a spit roast, and Retsina uses chicken breasts with the skin on so that as the chicken gets cooked, the skin naturally bastes its own breast and becomes crispy and savory. The charring is already more than moreish, but served with chunky tzatziki and herbal tambouli (tabbouleh in Greek), these birds are capable of flying into heaven.
Chicken has become basic because of its blandness. It does not offend any sensitive stomach or tender hearts; nor is it too red or too fatty for the health-conscious. It is a blank slate where chefs are able to be creative: hence the cornucopia of all the chicken dishes. But the best thing about its blandness is its universality: everyone—except the vegetarians, of course—can eat chicken: the Muslims, the Hindus, the Jewish and the Christians can finally agree on something, and guess what, even the Chinese and Japanese can join in the same meal. World Peace through the common chicken—may we all dance to that in the tune of Chicken Dance.
Modern chickens are bred for the broiler: they live in tight quarters and lead largely sedentary lives and they eat incessantly; and as a result, they are neurotic and overweight and prone to the flu so they need shots of vitamins, hormones and lots of antibiotics. Does it ring a bell? It does, doesn’t it—especially now that many are screeching and squawking pro and against Brexit and running around like headless chickens—albeit rather free-range. Befitting really—in light of the latest round of “chlorinated chicken” debate. The American dumped British tea into the sea before, and now they are keen to dump American chickens into the UK. Who said chickens are cowardly—they can be quite aggressive and even abusive when the pecking order is disrupted.
Free-range is what we want for our chicken, and that is what the Brexiters want—in the name of sovereignty. Regulation, immigration, trades and economy—one party squeals and the other screams. Frozen on fat little legs, the broilers are too chickened out to move. Europe or no Europe, there is a new field out there, which may not necessarily be greener, but it will surely get the chicken feet moving.
Hence, let’s cool our heels and call for another pot of tea and another round of coronation chicken sandwiches—preferably with a dash of mustard and a splash of Worcestershire sauce, but without any chloride. Not yet for now.
Kateh Restaurant Address: 5 Warwick Place, London W9 2PX
Tel: 020 7289 3393
Address: 48-50 Belsize Lane, Hampstead, London NW3 5AR
Tel: 020 7431 5855
Address: 2 Lion Street, Rye, TN31 7LB
Tel: 01797 222227