Chicken is back — in black!

20 Oct

Check out this recent New York Times piece …

PET a Silkie chicken and you understand how it got its name. The feathers are fine and flutter in wisps in the breeze. With a walnut-shaped crown of plumage, blue earlobes and feathers that come in a variety of colors, it’s a striking-looking bird that’s often raised for show.

Breeders also like them because they will hatch other birds’ eggs.

“They are such good moms,” said Frank R. Reese Jr., the founder of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan., who breeds Silkies for show. “They’ll sit on anything and hatch anything. They’ll hatch ducks, turkeys, chickens.”

Deprived of their striking outerwear, though, Silkies are far less appealing. They have bluish-gray skin, pitch-black bones and dark beige flesh (they’re sometimes called black-skinned chickens). They’re a scrawny pound or two, plucked, and are usually sold with the head and feet attached (with five toes, not the usual four).

Yet Asian cooks love them for their deep, gamy flavor, even in the breast meat. And with the nation’s Asian population growing, sales have soared.

Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, sells about 10,000 Silkies a year, up from a few hundred 10 years ago, when the hatchery first started raising the little birds, said Bud Wood, an owner.

“The majority are sold for ornamental purposes, but there’s a big market in San Francisco, where there are Asians, and in Minneapolis, where there’s a Hmong market,” Mr. Wood said. Japanese, Cambodians and Koreans also eat the Silkie, he said.

At K. K. Live Poultry in Brooklyn’s main Chinatown, Danny Wu, the owner, said he sells, butchers and cleans 3,000 Silkies a week, up from 400 a week 10 years ago. He attributes the growth to the number of Chinese moving from China and Taiwan to New York City.

 “They make it for soup, or for the broth for Mongolian hot pot,” he said, “and sometimes they make a curry.” For chefs outside Chinatown, though, it is not the easiest dish to sell.

“It’s a scary-looking creature,” said Patricia Yeo, of Sapa in Chelsea. She said she has her staff describe it as a deeply flavored, lean, free-range chicken.

She compares the Silkie to the blue-foot chicken, the domestic version of the poulet de Bresse of France; the blue-foot costs twice as much as the Silkie, she said. And unlike the blue-foot, the Silkie is rarely roasted.

In an Asian home, most often a Silkie will be made into a deeply flavored, aromatic, amber-colored soup, simmered or steamed with ginger, ginseng, dried wolfberries and dried red dates, also known as jujubes. The broth is usually served clear, but occasionally it has bits of meat in it. (A recipe can be found at

In China, the Silkie is called wu gu ji — black-boned chicken. It has been prized for its medicinal value since the seventh or eighth century, said Yu Ying-Shih, a retired professor of Chinese and East Asian studies at Princeton University. Women who have just given birth eat it for energy. But its curative powers are not necessarily gender-specific.

When Professor Yu was a small boy growing up in Anhui, in southeastern China, he said, because he had constant headaches, he was given bowls of Silkie chicken soup to make the headache go away.

Did the soup work?

“I don’t know,” he said, “but probably it helped.”

That same soup can be ordered a day in advance at some restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown, like Oriental Garden and Danny Ng’s.

Cooked in the traditional way, with ginseng, the soup has a hint of bitterness. Without ginseng, it is simply an addictive, intensely flavored broth.

Yvonne L. C. Wong, an art consultant and trustee of the China Institute, makes her variation of the soup with Virginia ham, wolfberries, dried white yam, preserved orange peel and ginger. It may be to the Chinese what chicken soup is to Jews — liquid penicillin.

Ms. Yeo slow-cooks the chickens in curries and other braises. When she was growing up in Cambridge, England, she remembers, her grandmother visited from Kuala Lumpur and made the family the traditional Chinese soup in a clay pot.

For her black-skinned chicken slow-cooked in dark soy sauce at Sapa, Ms. Yeo braises the quartered chicken in a dark, aromatic sauce that includes onions, garlic, ginger, galangal, chilies, wolfberries, Chinese dried red dates, soy sauce and star anise.

“My secret ingredient?” she said, as she ran upstairs from the restaurant pantry to the kitchen. “Coke!” She said she substitutes it for the traditional rock sugar, because she likes Coke’s caramel flavor. She braises the chicken the night before she puts it on the menu, as a special, because it, like nearly all braised dishes, tastes better the next day.

At the Jefferson Restaurant in Greenwich Village, Simpson Wong takes an even more European turn. He cooks the Silkie leg and thigh as a confit in olive oil, seasoned with garlic and rosemary, for six hours, and does a quick sauté of the tender breast meat in a savory sauce of garlic, ginger, rice wine lees, oyster sauce and lemon balm.

At Chow Bar in Greenwich Village, Peter Klein serves slow-cooked black chicken in red Thai coconut sauce. He also slow-cooks it, shreds the meat and mixes it with an Asian barbecue sauce. Then he stuffs it into toasted Chinese bread, along with paper-thin slices of cucumber and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro leaves.

Mr. Klein asks his staff to describe the chicken as particularly fresh and lean.

“We try not to go into great detail,” he said. “The American public is a little squeamish.”

Where to Buy

Silkie chickens can be found in the following shops:

BAYARD MEAT MARKET 57 Bayard Street, (212) 619-6206.

DELUXE FOOD MARKET 79 Elizabeth Street, (212) 925-5766.

DYNASTY SUPERMARKET 68 Elizabeth Street, (212) 966-4943. Also sells all the other ingredients needed for the soup.

K. K. LIVE POULTRY 6221 Sixth Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 439-3838.

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