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H. Kong Faces Chickenless Dining

January 2, 1998

HONG KONG (AP) _ The familiar aroma of fresh chicken _ sauteed, steamed or lightly sauced _ is strangely missing from Hong Kong restaurants these days. In one of them, roasted piglets hang head down, a crisp, golden alternative to the unavailable Cantonese staple.

``If a customer asks for steamed chicken, I say, `I’m sorry,‴ said Law Yip-lam, the white-hatted chef at acclaimed restaurant One Harbor Road. ``Have something else.″

A government-ordered slaughter of Hong Kong’s 1.3 million chickens has wiped fresh chicken off the menu in restaurants across this culinary capital.

The slaughter has badly crimped Hong Kong’s eating habits. Chicken _ often served a little bloody around the bone _ is a staple of the regional cooking that highly values freshness.

Hong Kong, which has an abundance of restaurants offering an exotic array of foreign and Chinese foods, normally imports about 80,000 birds a day from farms in mainland China. Local farms supply about 20,000 daily.

Before the flu hit, markets were filled with shoppers who would drag live birds from wire cages and jab their breasts to judge their plumpness.

The vendor would pull a sharp knife and slit the bird’s throat before dumping it in a bin to bleed. Then he’d pluck and bag it.

Even before the slaughter, which took most of a week, chicken supply shrank. The government banned imports from the mainland Dec. 23, suspecting the virus originated there.

The mass killing was ordered when tests showed that chickens were the likely source of the influenza virus A H5N1 that has infected at least 15 people, including four who have died. Six others are suspected to have the virus.

Duck, geese and pigeons remain available, although those kept together with chickens at markets or farms were slaughtered. Beijing duck is still on menus, but many people are shunning it anyway.

So why not use a frozen, plastic-wrapped Danish or American bird?

It’s just not the same, says Chef Law, as he relaxes before the dinner rush by sipping pale green tea from a white porcelain bowl.

``It’s something in the taste, you see, when your teeth bite down on it. Fresh chicken _ it just tastes different,″ said Law. ``The taste unfolds slowly in your mouth.″

His Chinese restaurant offers fish, mutton or beef, but if customers insist on a chicken dish, Law said he reluctantly uses imported chicken.

Law ticked off the dishes that really need a fresh bird: steamed chicken (so simple freshness shows); fried crispy chicken (imported birds don’t have the right kind of skin); and chicken with black bean sauce.

In Cafe Chater, a new sticker appears on the menu: ``Our chicken is imported from Denmark.″

But assistant head waiter Tommy Tang said the chef uses it only for Western dishes, such as roasted spring chicken with rosemary. The roasting makes the meat drier, making the flavor less subtle, he said.

Like One Harbour Road, the Cafe Chater has nixed some Chinese dishes.

``We used to sell about 30 Hainan chickens a day,″ he said, referring to a popular steamed chicken dish.

That’s gone now, along with sauteed sliced chicken with assorted bell peppers and double-boiled chicken with ginger. Chicken has been taken out of the Yangzhou fried rice.

``It has affected business a bit,″ Tang said.

The government is making no promises about when fresh chicken can return. It’s unlikely to be in time for the Jan. 28 Lunar New Year, highlight of the Chinese calendar and an occasion for feasting.

Even though he misses chicken, Law thinks the slaughter was the right move. ``It’s better to be safe,″ he said.

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