Chicken Run

Dawn, Karachi
February 05, 2004

By Bina Shah


As the bird flu spreads all over Asia, is it time for us to say goodbye to the chicken tikka? Bina Shah reports.

Pakistan is home to all sorts of crises, and a new one seems to come up every year to catch us unawares. Never mind the usual problems of crime, violence, lack of education, inadequate medical care, and crushing poverty: in the last two years the country has managed to come up with constitutional chaos, honour killings, Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism and the Karachi oil spill. However, the latest crisis to hit Pakistan is one that deserves special attention, if only for the terror that it strikes into the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the people: the bird flu, or avian influenza, that is sweeping across Asia and laying low its poultry like dead flies.

According to the Pakistan Poultry Association, the bird flu has been attacking Pakistani chickens since November, but it was treated as a routine illness until about three million chickens got infected in December. Apparently something went very wrong in the poultry industry: the chickens were made to attend too many weddings while wearing chiffon outfits, and must have exposed themselves to the bitter cold of the wedding season. Or they weren't careful enough to avoid the germs brought in by their cousins visiting from Cambodia, Thailand, and China over the Christmas vacation.

Whatever the cause for the spread, it's obvious that the poultry farmers have neglected to give their chickens adequate amounts of Vitamin C, which many swear is a miracle drug as far as boosting immunity goes. The chickens may also have been subject to extreme stress, lowering their resistance to infection, which is understandable when you're made to produce seventy eggs a week and then get yourself led to the slaughterhouse at the end of your reproductive life. Vitamin C would help with their stress as well, but it's rumoured that stress produces much better quality meat, so poultry farmers don't even bother covering their chickens' ears when their compatriots get their heads chopped off in the next room.

Scientists fear that the avian flu may mutate and combine with a human influenza virus to produce a super virus against which human beings will have no protection. As if we humans didn't have enough to worry about, now we have to consider the fact that eating that extra-large meal from franchise restaurants can kill you through flu, not just blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease.

Naturally this fear has led to a huge cull in the chicken population, but unscrupulous dealers are buying up the dead chickens and selling them on the market anyway. They realize that selling animals that have died from the disease is quite wrong, but they argue that the culled chickens are at least killed in a halal manner and so eating them is a source of much sawaab for everyone concerned.

But many people are wary of such reasoning and are refusing to buy or eat chicken until the crisis passes. This has led to a different crisis; restaurants and food industries that rely on chicken are suffering unprecedented losses.

The proprietors of such restaurants have all been spotted trying to convince their customers that nothing will happen to them if they eat a well-cooked barbecued Chicken Tikka, as heat is said to kill the virus, but customers are taking no chances. This is leading to a great increase in the consumption of other meat, such as beef and mutton. Perhaps goat tikka, usually a seldom consumed item on the menu, will become more popular if the virus doesn't show any signs of abating.

In the meantime, the chickens, when they aren't dying, might be enjoying ruling the roost, so to speak, strutting around the farmyard and making fun of all the other animals that are going to get the chop, while they manage to get sick leave and snuggle in bed with a cup of hot vegetable soup and a magazine to pass the time.

The government is busy denying that the bird flu is dangerous, and a recent newspaper headline stated that the virus had been contained and was even receding in Karachi. Heaven forbid that our government and newspapers should lie to us, but it's not so hard to envision the day when poultry farms are inhabited by other animals.

However, the most cheap and easily available animals are out of the question: street cats don't make good tikka and all our stray dogs have already been exported to Korea, so we will have to go for more exotic animals: Bangladeshi parrots and mynahs, monkeys, and rabbits come to mind. Or Pakistanis could align their tastes with the English elite and start eating other birds, such as duck, goose, pheasant, and turkey, if they simply must consume large animals with wings and feathers.

In the meantime, here are some popular chicken dishes and the replacements that you could consider instead:

Chicken Corn Soup: Goat Corn Soup (made from the bones of chota gosht).

Chicken Tikka: Cheese Tikka (take one packet of cheddar cheese, shape it like chicken and flavour liberally with yogurt, red chillies, and other spices).

Chicken Kababs: Cheese Kababs (same method as above).

Fried Chicken Chickenless

Fried Chicken (most people only want the fried batter and eat the chicken because they have to).

Sweet and Sour Chicken: Sweet and Sour Potatoes (cooked potatoes look a lot like cooked chicken, especially when smothered in ketchup).

Chicken Karahi: Tuna Karahi (important source of omega-3 fatty acids).

For now the authorities assure us that the type of bird flu affecting Pakistani poultry is a less harmful one than the strain in the Far East. So far it has not been transmitted to any humans, which is a minor miracle considering the hygienic conditions and stringent health standards employed in the Pakistani food industry. To stay on the safe side, they advise us to wash our hands after handling chicken carcasses, make sure chicken carcasses don't contaminate anything else, and to cook the chicken at a high temperature to ensure the virus is killed.

However, the bird flu is a sad commentary on how we think about animals in Pakistan. Go to any street or alley and you will see cats playing in garbage, dogs running around with parts of their bodies bitten and chewed off, cattle wallowing in filth and dust, and donkeys whipped and beaten into pulling giant carts on the roads.

Our attitude towards the animal kingdom is either one of neglect and abuse, or commercialization and disregard. It always makes me wonder how we can expect our animal populations, whether wild, domesticated, or commercial, to remain healthy and happy when their welfare is not that important to us. Perhaps the bird flu can be taken as a sign that we need to rethink how we treat animals that have been gifted to us for food, before they literally turn around and start killing us in protest of our behaviour towards them. More cheese tikka, anyone?

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2004

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