The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch once explained his reason for not eating meat thus: “but for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy”.
In the case of the British intensively reared chicken, that “proportion of life and time” has now been reduced to a pitiful 5 to 6 weeks.
It is a further sad fact that the majority of the one billion chickens a year reared in the UK for human consumption come from intensive farms. On those farms, the emphasis is on making the chickens gain weight as quickly as possible, hence their miserably short life expectancy.
Even in their wretched few weeks of life, this push for rapid growth rate can cause the chickens cause a range of physical disorders. The cramped and overcrowded conditions in which they are reared (typically, each “grown” chicken gets less than an A4 sheet of space) creates high levels of stress in the chickens, which in turn leads to weakened immune systems.
This combination of intense proximity and weakened immune system is ripe for the rapid transfer of diseases.
Bird flu was once an exceedingly rare disease among chickens, but today there are outbreaks most years. Transmission of bird flu from chickens to humans was almost non-existent 25 years ago. Now it occurs regularly.
A recently published but very timely report “A British Pandemic” warns that the way we rear chickens in the UK risks the introduction of new, potentially catastrophic, pandemics that could be far more deadly than Covid-19.
The report puts the blame for this situation squarely on British supermarkets, who have led drive for cheap poultry.
It warns that precedents across the world have already shown how intensive conditions for rearing chickens provide a fertile ground for the development of an ever-increasing supply of new pathogens.
The report calls upon consumers to help reduce that risk by eliminating intensively farmed animal products from their diets.
Personally, I am with Plutarch on the whole subject of meat eating, but if you must insist on savouring your “morsel of flesh” you might at least want to think twice before you next purchase cheap supermarket chicken.
This is a quick and easy but stunningly good dish. It needs a meaty mushroom like oyster, or preferably king oyster, to really bring out the rich flavours and textures.
Preserved rose bean curd, sometimes called fermented red bean curd, is available from Asian supermarkets. It not only adds a delicious umami flavour to the dish, but also gives it the red colouring typical of char sui dishes. If you cannot source it, use an equivalent amount of organic tomato ketchup.
oyster mushroom char sui
400 g king oyster, or oyster, mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
40 g hoisin sauce
50 g preserved rose bean curd
15 ml mirin (rice wine vinegar)
15 ml maple syrup
1 tsp five spice powder
2 tbsp groundnut oil
steamed or boiled jasmine rice
steamed or wok-fried pak choi
1 spring onion, white and green parts, sliced diagonally and thinly
1. For the marinade, whisk together the garlic, hoisin sauce, ketchup, mirin, maple syrup and five spice powder.
2 Slice the mushrooms to a thickness of approximately ¼ of a centimetre. Place the slices in a bowl and add the marinade. Very gently toss together to ensure the mushrooms are completely coated. Cover and set to one side for an hour (longer if possible).
3. When you are ready to cook the mushrooms, place a wok over a high heat and add the groundnut oil. As soon as the oil begins to shimmer, add slices of the marinated oyster mushrooms. You will need to do this in batches. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until beginning to char underneath, then carefully turn the mushroom slices over and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Drain briefly on kitchen paper.
4. Serve the char sui oyster mushrooms scattered with the sliced spring onion, accompanied by steamed jasmine rice and steamed or wok-fried pak choi.