Marathon Chicken vs Whitebreasts

In Ethiopia people don’t care much for huge, tender, tasteless industrial style chicken. Everybody, from farmer to university researcher agreed: For good Ethiopian food you need tough and streetwise Ethiopian chicken. This poses a big challenge to the development of the commercial poultry sector: While there is a big market for eggs, farmers and extensionists alike tell us that producing broilers is just not viable because they are so difficult to sell.

Today I talked with my IFPRI colleague Clemens Breisinger about this and he asks: “Well, why don’t they develop a broiler industry that produces local chicken, if that’s what the market wants?”

I have no answer to this. And I have to admit that I had thought much more along the lines of: “How can you develop the market for international chicken in Ethiopia?” instead of asking this much more logical question. Maybe those involved in the chicken industry and agricultural development in the country have a similar bias that “innovation” always has to be the thing that comes from the countries of the developed world? Or is there another reason why it wouldn’t make sense to support the improvement of the marathon chicken segment?

3 Responses

  1. I think the problem is with the mode of production not in its contents. In other words, once you put Marathon Chicken into large scale industrial production process, it no longer remains “street smart”. Am I making sense?

  2. Sure, but apart from being smart, these local chickens are also a different breed from the “improved but street-stupid white-fleshed chicken”. So while they are looking for increased scale and quality of production, they might focus on producing more chicken of the breeds that taste the way Ethiopians like it, instead of breeding all the taste away…

  3. Besides breed, feed composition and amount of space to move about effects flavor and texture.

    A street smart chicken also forages for food, eating all kinds of insects that it finds while scratching. Free space to run about also helps develop sinewy muscles.

    An industrialized chicken loses it’s “street smarts”, factor out breed for now, because it’s diet is more homogenized and it has limited space to play.

    The word “free” in American free range chicken is actually a bit misleading. The amount of space is controlled to varying degrees, too much running about and the chickens toughen up.

    Anyway, does good Ethiopian food require long slow cooking? I’m thinking of the North African preference for road runners and free-spirited chickens from family farms or small farms. French coq au vin also requires and old rooster. Long, slow cooking with spices or an acid component favors tougher birds.

    Freshly slaughtered chickens also tend to have a more intense chicken flavor. Even in Los Angeles we have live poultry stores that cater to clients (usually from Latin America or Asia) who want chickens with more flavor. Is this something that can be integrated into what farmers and extensionists are already doing? Have customers choose a live chicken to be freshly “prepped” to take home for cooking?

    I am fairly certain that in North Africa the commercialization of chicken grew hand in hand with a whole bunch of other factors. For example, the need to conserve fuel and time, the 30 minute pressure cooker versus the 5 hour clay tagine. Cooking methods not only effect the flavor of a finished dish, but also dictate the kind of protein that’s desirable to begin with.

    As far as “industrialized” chicken parts are concerned in North Africa, the legs trump breasts in customer appeal. More flavor, flesh that requires longer cooking time than breast and holds up to spices and aromatics. I think the breasts are used for processed products.

    Hope this helps, I’m trying to offer various transitional examples.

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