Asam Garam
Essay
20 Apr 2022

The Urban Chicken

From free-range chicken to and broiler chicken, which one is the ‘better bird’? And does it matter?

Text
Chiquita Kusumahadi
Illustration
Echsan
Topics
Ayam Broiler
Ayam Kampung
Chicken Chronicles
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As one of the top meats consumed in Indonesia, chicken is deeply rooted in Indonesian culture. Every region in Indonesia has its own specialty chicken dish; Soto Ayam Ambengan from Surabaya, Ayam Taliwang from Lombok, Ayam Woku from Manado, and the ever popular Ayam Pop from West Sumatra to name a few. The mainstream market in Indonesia offers a few types of chicken for consumption with the top two being local free-range chicken (ayam kampung) and broiler chicken (ayam negeri). A quick Google search for the former and suggestions such as ‘healthy’ and ‘nutritious’ are among the top results. Now do the same for the latter, and you will see how one word makes all the difference. The previously positive tone of the search results is quickly refreshed with words such as ‘risk’, ‘danger’ and ‘quality’. In the pursuit of good chicken, this ever-popular poultry unites, but it can also divide.

In the pursuit of good chicken, this ever-popular poultry unites, but it can also divide.

My parents are firm believers of ayam kampung, a preference they credit to their upbringing. They grew up in a small town in East Java during a time where ayam kampung is commonly served and ayam negeri was rumoured to be hormone enhanced. Even after spending more than half their life in the capital, they remain loyal to ayam kampung, always choosing to opt-out of broiler chicken dishes in restaurants. My sister and I, however, do not share the same sentiment. Growing up in Jakarta in the early 2000s, I attended plenty of birthday parties at KFC or McDonald’s. I remember the excitement of going to these parties, since it was one of the rare moments where I could eat fried chicken. If my parents’ relationship with broiler chicken can be compared to someone who pledged sobriety, mine would be that of a social drinker.

At first glance, it may be hard to tell the two chickens apart besides its obvious difference in price. Ayam negeri is known for being plump and tender, with a lighter pinkish-white colouring. The meat is thick yet chewy, thus easier to process and cook–a favourable trait for those who seek convenience. In contrast, ayam kampung is known for its firm, slightly tough meat quality with a darker colouring and savoury taste. Due to its diet, free-range breeding and longer lifespan, ayam kampung is higher in haemoglobin and iron despite being smaller in size. This seemingly unfavourable trait works to the advantage of Indonesian cuisine which often uses slow cooking methods like braising (ungkep) to incorporate flavour into a dish. Of course, other dishes are better suited with broiler chicken. Imagine if the Kentucky fried chicken known for its juicy, tender quality is replaced with ayam kampung.

The long-standing rivalry between ayam kampung and ayam negeri as the “better” bird stems from the way they have been raised. For individual farmers, ayam kampung is more often the preferred breed to farm due to its low maintenance. Feed for these free-range birds often consists of ground corn or grains and is usually chemical-free. Farmers simply spread food in the yard, where the chicks are free to roam and feed themselves. On the other hand, the breeding of ayam negeri is highly efficient. These birds are raised specifically for meat production (pedaging) so they are intensively bred to promote rapid early growth. Unlike free-range, broiler breeding uses less space per bird which is why attentive care and enhanced chicken feed are needed in order to produce and maintain quality meat. The low mobility of ayam negeri means they have a lower Food Conversion Ratio (FCR) compared to ayam kampung, resulting in a faster production turnaround. In other words, these birds require less food to turn into meat and thus have a shorter lifespan.

Ayam negeri is often the subject of controversy and health rumours due to its industrial breeding method. Among them are concerns about the birds’ quality of life and the practice of injecting hormones to promote rapid growth. In reality, the usage of hormones on chickens is no longer practised. Not only is hormone injection impractical and cost-inefficient, but it is also strictly prohibited by Indonesia’s health regulations. Instead, the birds are administered with spray vaccines and subject to routine monitoring programs by the Ministry of Agriculture to check for antibiotic residue. Despite this, the clouded reputation of broiler chicken remains.

The respective names of these chickens might also reveal our underlying assumptions. The word kampung directly translates to village, so it is easy to associate it with frugality, locality and familiarity. Meanwhile, the word negeri alludes to the foreignness and unfamiliarity of a faraway land. The broiler chicken is a figure of modernisation and change. Its imported industrial practice is technology-oriented and relies on automated systems, so most producers of ayam negeri are large corporations supported by foreign investors. These so-called ‘integrators’ control the poultry industry from end to end. Today, 80% of the market is controlled by three major integrator companies and only 20% by independent farmers–many of which are struggling to stay afloat. This is why since 2019, multiple independent poultry farmer organisations have begun appealing to President Joko Widodo to issue a presidential regulation (Perpres) that will restrict integrator companies and protect the livelihood of independent farmers.

“…Over time the Western-style fried chicken has stayed relevant because it successfully assimilated with local flavours and carved a spot in the local culinary landscape.

The ayam geprek boom is a case in point. The origins of this fusion dish are somewhat unclear, but it quickly gained popularity around 2017. Soon, Indonesia saw a rise in local geprek joints–one chain even went as far as opening outlets in a few South East Asian countries. Similar to the East Javanese dish ayam penyet, both dishes involve smashing a fried chicken with a pestle before roughly mixing it with sambal–usually with a customisable spice level. But while ayam penyet traditionally uses fried ayam kampung marinated in bumbu kuning (yellow spice paste), ayam geprek pairs an American-style fried chicken with popular sambal such as sambal matah or sambal bawang. Further Western influence can be seen with recent menus offering mozzarella cheese topping alongside the usual rice or indomie side-dish. Before the rise of ayam geprek, fast-food giants have released local fusion menus (e.g. Mc Donald’s ayam gulai and KFC’s sambal nusantara), but none have sustained and matched the popularity of ayam geprek. The nationwide success of ayam geprek proved the versatility of Western fried chicken and further localised ayam negeri to the Indonesian masses.

We Indonesians love a good chicken dish but our relationship with the chicken industry is complicated. In an increasingly fast-paced society, ayam negeri seems like an obvious pick, but with the recent rise in green living, many of those living in urban areas are shifting towards the organic ayam kampung. All the while, ayam negeri is threatening the livelihood of independent farmers’ but it is also the solution for those of us looking for an affordable source of protein. Both types of chicken have their own merits, so the choice of one over the other is situational. Ultimately, our differences reveal the values and struggles of our current world and how we might overcome them. Rather than battling over the “better” bird, maybe we are better off focusing on how to reconcile the two sides, just as we did with the fusion of ayam geprek.

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