I ate the best roast chicken of my lifetime in Sukhothai, Thailand, among the ruins of an ancient city that was the capital of an ancient empire in the 13th century. No travel guide or tourism website predicted that I would find such a delight at a nameless food stall in an abandoned city that, despite its enchanting beauty, remains outside the itinerary of most foreign visitors to Thailand.
Early one morning, we arrived at the gates of the ancient site, and there, near the entrance, was an improvised charcoal grill made from a soldered metal box. Inside were four long iron spits that the cook turned by hand. On each spit, five chickens were skewered – small, dripping with fat, with crispy browned skin golden with turmeric. They were being roasted slowly and at varying heights above the charcoal.
We bought a roast chicken; it was divided skillfully into four parts and wrapped in wax paper. Plastic bags held a spicy sauce and slices of fresh cabbage. The chicken-roaster’s wife added sticky rice, and with a wooden mortar and pestle prepared Son Tam, a salad of papaya seasoned with small, salted river crayfish.
After walking for hours among huge statues of Buddha and temples with endless stairways, we sat down to a picnic of unforgettable chicken. Years later, burrowing through the memory of that meal, we wonder if it had really been an exceptional delicacy or whether it was graced by the dramatic setting and our romantic imagination.
Gai yang (roast chicken) is a common dish in various regions of Thailand. In rural areas, there is still a chance of finding chickens raised in good conditions in a small chicken coop. Or perhaps the cook was particularly talented. Whatever the case, that juicy chicken of Sukhothai remains my ideal roast chicken.
Beit Jala bistro
It’s lunchtime at the Ka’bar Restaurant in Beit Jala. In front stands a large charcoal grill, on which dozens and perhaps hundreds of chickens are roasted every day. “I’m a chef, I can cook anything,” boasts Ka’bar Nahla, the man who decades ago started the restaurant that has become a well-known local institution. But then he admits in a small voice that the people demand roast chicken; it is the only item remaining on the menu after the restaurant’s almost 50 years in business.
He says he learned the art of roasting chicken – halved along the breast bone and flattened on the grill, and the recipe for the spicy seasoning – from Lebanese guests who in the past would come to the town near Jerusalem to stay at the Everest Hotel, where he worked as a cook. The restaurant, which was originally in the hotel itself, moved – due to the second intifada – to the center of the ancient village, to a lovely site with stone arches painted a sparkling white. The menu remains exactly the same, even if Israeli guests, who used to come to the restaurant en masse and made it famous, hardly come any longer.
Entire families sit at the tables of this bistro-style Palestinian chicken retaurant; they receive good value for money. The waiters spread out sheets of plain paper and bring salads of middling quality – vegetables, hummus, eggplant – that precede the main course. Then come tasty quarters, halves and whole chickens from the grill, served with matwama, a garlic sauce – almost a mousse made with olive oil – and tatbila, a lemon sauce usually accompanied by hummus and here served alongside the chicken.
Everyone eats with their hands and wipes up the drippings on the plate with whole wheat pita. I heard praise for the roast chicken of Beit Jala from foodie friends before I had a chance to try it myself, and before the town and other places in the Palestinian Authority were turned into foreign, forbidden ground. The reality cannot compete with expectations, although the chicken is tasty.
Friday noon at the Melamed Farm, Lul Organi, in Kfar Hanagid, south of Tel Aviv, where free-range chickens are raised for meat. Guests sit around tables in the backyard of the farm’s restaurant to eat roast chicken from a rotisserie oven, along with a bottle of chilled white wine and potatoes that have been roasted under the chicken. Meanwhile, in this peaceful setting, the diners can observe the field of green wheat that will eventually feed the chickens being served.
Arik Melamed, a former army and high-tech person who became a pioneer in the field of nutrition, started the farm in 2009 on his family’s property. Four months ago, he opened a store to sell the chickens raised there. You can buy it frozen, or fresh if you order in advance. There are also organic vegetables from another farm, in which Melamed is a partner. Every day at noon, from Sunday to Friday, you can enjoy roast chicken straight from the rotisserie. Like the chicken we ate in Thailand, they are relatively small, and size is not the only difference between them and the industrially-raised chickens usually consumed here.
No official supervision
Anyone attending a recent conference on poultry sponsored by members of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition – scientists, researchers and foodies whose objective is to fight for consumer rights in the area of nutrition – might have considered avoiding chicken entirely.
“We decided to hold a meeting on the subject of poultry because according to data of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Israel is the world leader in consumption of poultry per capita,” says Alon Shepon, a founder of the forum. But despite the high demand, there is almost no public discussion of the subject.
“Beef has been under supervision for years by people involved in health and the environment, but poultry is almost ignored, and the meeting presented a worrisome picture. The poultry we eat today is very different from that consumed by our grandparents. Tremendous quantities of antibiotics are used, both as a spur to growth and to deal with diseases, which are a matter of routine in commercial chicken coops due to the crowded conditions and the use of species of chickens that have undergone genetic changes for fast growth. An industrial chicken reaches the size for slaughter at the age of 42 days; at that age it’s still supposed to be a small chick. These genetic manipulations make the chickens more vulnerable to disease. The main answer arising from the discussion was the need to reduce poultry consumption.”
In recent years – due to consumer demand rather than government intervention – the number of farms raising poultry without antibiotics is increasing. The Melamed Farm is one of the few that not only avoids antibiotics, but also meets the strict standards it has set for itself in maintaining the welfare of the birds, density per meter of space in the chicken coop, nutrition and organic conditions. (In Israel, there are still no official standards.)
“Antibiotics reduce the mortality stemming from diseases related to density, but if you reduce the density, the incidence of disease declines,” says Melamed. His chickens are still very expensive (39 shekels per kilogram, compared to 20 shekels for non-organic chickens), but if there is anyone who deserves support in the fight to change the methods used in raising poultry for meat, this is the man. And his roast chickens are wonderful.
Ka’bar Restaurant, Beit Jala, (02) 271-419; Melamed Farm store-restaurant, Kfar Hanagid, 054-331-4860, www.lul-organi.co.il