Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Culture Shock: Buying Chicken

To Market, to Market to buy a fat hen

I wonder if Malaysians come to America and think, "Is this it? Is this is the only way to buy chicken?" Like the vast majority of carniverous Americans, I would just go to the grocery store and buy neatly packaged chicken out of the refrigerated case. Who knew that this simple task would have so many variations when I moved over here?

Super Chicken!
No, it's not the latest Marvel Comics hero. Super Chicken is the term for what Americans think of as Whole Chicken. A Standard Chicken, however, means with the head and feet still attached.

Chicken Feet
Succulent chicken feet are a Chinese delicacy. In the same way that you may opt for just drumsticks, you can get just feet here. In the mid-80's, my parents in America tried to start a business exporting discarded chicken feet from the U.S. to Hong Kong. Tyson Chicken informed them that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not permit chicken feet for human consumption, thus thwarting their plans. Then, Wal-Mart successfully lobbied the FDA to change the rule so that they could export chicken feet to their stores in China. True story.

Wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray
Yup, you can go to the grocery store in Malaysia and buy chicken this way, too. For the most part, this is my default method. But the inventory is small, and sometimes all that's on the shelf is drummettes or wings. Another time, my car smelled of Death when I got home, and the odor was definitely coming off the chicken despite the fact that the expiration date hadn't hit.

Sometimes, I'll get lucky and tongs are available for handling the chicken.

Buy it in bulk
At Tesco Hypermart, carts in the middle of the aisle will be piled high with chicken. On the day I took this picture, ice was layered between the pieces. Most times, however, a only the pieces on the bottom are being chilled with the upper 12 inches of the pile just exposed to room temperature. In this situation, I'll grab the pieces directly off the ice. If you think Jenga is hard, try dislodging slippery, raw chicken from the foundation of a tall poultry tower without causing the whole thing to tumble down. Just scoop it up, dump it in a plastic bag, and bring it over to the Weigh Station for the price sticker. Do not dare go to the Checkout without stopping at the Weigh Station first. Hint: Dig the hand sanitizer out of your purse before your hands are covered with raw chicken juice. I learned this one the hard way.

At the Wet Market (top picture)
The Wet Market supposedly has the freshest chickens. It's also the place with the most abundant supply and with the most customers. The chicken is slaughtered and plucked that morning, then brought to the market. Have I mentioned that the market is open air and unairconditioned? The chickens are laid out on tile counters, typically without the benefit of ice or refrigeration.

I must confess that I waited until a good friend had purchased chicken here for weeks without falling ill before I was willing to give this a try. When I did, my friend in Singapore commented that I had really embraced SE Asian life. I only buy chickens here if I can arrive early in the morning before they've sat out in the heat for too long.

The chicken stall at the Wet Market is similar to a butcher shop. You tell the vendor which pieces you want, and he'll cut it up for you. You get the discarded bits in the bag, too, because they weigh the entire chicken before taking a knife to it.

Freshly Slaughtered
Some markets bring the chickens in alive and then slaughter them on site. Now that's fresh! The only way to get your poultry fresher is the way my mom did it as a kid. Go into the yard and do it yourself right before cooking.

My local market doesn't slaughter chickens there, so I was naive and unsuspecting when I was at another market and wandered into a room labeled "Chicken." I must not have noticed the clucking noises or else I would have anticipated what I would witness. I've always imagined chicken slaughtering as either the complex machine in Chicken Run or else with a butcher knife raised high in the air before coming down on the chicken's neck laid upon a chopping block. Not in Malaysia.

Since the majority of the population is Muslim, chicken must be killed following Halal protocol. Halal is the dietary rules of Islam, similar to Judaism's prescription of Kosher rules. [If you're the squeamish type, stop reading!] When I walked in, two people were holding the live chicken in mid-air and one of them was holding the knife. With the both the slaughterer and the chicken's head pointing towards Mecca, the long blade was drawn across its neck, slicing through the jugular vein and windpipe but not the spinal column. During this process, they murmur a prayer to Allah. Some of my devout Christian friends wonder if it's permissable for them to consume halal chicken since it's been killed in Allah's name. Causing minimal pain to the animal is imperative. The chicken is then drained off all blood before butchering. I did not buy chicken this day.

As long as I'm here, I'll continue trying out the various ways to obtain chicken. But when I return to America with its sanitary chicken supply far divorced from the reality of slaughter, I'll be as happy as a rooster in a hen house.


  1. Yuck! I do not know why I am so grossed out. . . my mom grew up on a chicken farm and yet, yuck! I had chicken feet once and once was enough for me :oP

  2. I love buying my chicken from the wet market. If you haven't experienced the Palau Tikus chicken section let me know and we can do a field trip one of these days. The chickens come in clucking. Not sure it get's much fresher than that. Also, next time you think about supermarket chicken in the states, just think about how big the breasts are... I'm not sure what's worse, chicken outside or chicken pumped full of hormones...

    1. Yes, please take me on a field trip. Do you select your chicken alive or are they already plucked, cleaned and sitting out?

      Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? She has one part where she discusses turkeys and how they've been bred to satisfy's people's desire for meaty turkey breasts and can't even walk around (or procreate) without falling over.

  3. Buying chicken from the market at least gives you a bit of an idea about where your food comes from. The sterile styrofoam supermarket experience doesn't even give people a clue.

    1. I realized that I had absolutely no clue what happened to the sterile, styrofoam tray chicken BEFORE it was packed up. For all I know, it could have been sitting out for hours in the heat, too. That's what made me open to heading to the wet market.

  4. Yikes! That might just turn me into a vegetarian if those were my only chicken buying options :)

    1. I will admit that I did indeed consider turning vegetarian.

  5. Oh my gosh.... i think i'm going to become vegetarian when we move over there! UGH!

    1. Once I got over my shock, it really wasn't so bad. I still eat chicken.

  6. I really found that fascinating. Thanks for sharing the process!


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