Day-old chicks in wooden crates, waiting to be transported | Photo: Celine Asril
Did I really want to find out where and how Bincho at Hua Bee's tender, flavourful chickens were farmed? I did, though I wasn't sure if a trip to its premises in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, would make me feel guilty about eating the yakitori-ya's (a small Japanese-style grilled chicken restaurant) headlining meat.
What I discovered definitely made the trip worthwhile, and affected my perspective on chicken being the "dirtiest meat" on the market.
It took Bincho of Hua Bee's chef Asai Masashi three hours to interrogate the chicken farm about their practices, and I was just getting started.
The people and the farm
Toh Thye San Farm, a family-owned farm, has been in operation since 1979. What started off as a slaughterhouse expanded to poultry farming when the opportunity presented itself in December 2006.
Our guide, Kenny Toh, is the family's third generation farmer. The former chef got into farming because of his love of food and sustainability. "This was a marriage of convenience," the tall, smiley-eyed farmer said.
Toh Thye San Farm has 12 farms in the Sepang region itself – one breeder and 11 broiler farms. The farm relocated to Malaysia after having made two attempts to set up in farmland Singapore. "Moving to Malaysia after our last location in Punggol was just more sustainable for us in the long-run," explained Toh. The family seems to have the knack for thinking ahead.
All 12 farms are accredited by Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), as well as the Department of Veterinary Services, Ministry of Agriculture in Malaysia.
The journey to the farm in Simpang Renggam, Johor, took us an hour from the Causeway by car. It's a fairly smooth journey, especially if taken, as we did, on a Monday morning, in between rush hour traffic.
We took the highways, and switched vehicles later, to hardier, four-wheel drives to be able to maneuvre the uneven stone-littered paths that lead into the farm.
Located past a palm oil plantation, is this quiet, simple (as far as farms go) farm. A metal gate with security (you're only allowed in if you're part of the crew) out front, the disinfecting troughs that one has to pass to get in are made of plain, un-tiled concrete structures, and chicken pens are built on stilts over dry stone-littered ground.
View a photo gallery of my time at the farm by clicking on the picture below.
Toh Thye San Farm rears only two breeds of chickens – the commercial broiler (white) and the coloured (red) broiler Naked Neck chickens. The farm does not produce eggs for sale, only for breeding, and they take only the first generation eggs for this purpose. "First generation eggs are stronger in their DNA," said Toh, who is also consciously doing so to maintain the purity of the breed.
"The chickens will lay only one egg every 24 hours," said Toh. This factors in to the breeding process and cost of breeding.
The generally white-feathered broiler chickens (the light yellow chicks in the photos) take 25 to 33 days to grow up to the adult-slash-saleable 2kg bird. It is prized for its tender meat.
The Naked Neck chickens are so-named for its lack of feathers on the back (and front) of its neck. Toh shared that this breed was originally from Egypt (although research shows that it could have been from Transylvania instead – they're close), and the breed developed to be able to withstand high temperatures. These meatier bird takes 115 to 120 days to grow into 2kg, so only about half the number – compared to the broilers – is bred every month.
At the time of our visit, the farms have a combined population of 1.2 million chickens. That breaks it down to seven to 12 pens per farm, with 6,000 to 8,000 chickens per pen, depending on the age of the chickens and size of the pen.
Singapore imports about 50 per cent of Toh They San's chickens, which comes up to about 180,000 white and 80,000 coloured a month. Of them, 80 to 90 per cent are white chickens, 10 to 20 per cent are the red.
The older the chicken, the better the taste
The older the chicken, the more intense the flavour of the meat.
However, it costs more to rear older chickens, which is why many farms stick to rearing fast-growing broilers. The cost of the feed and the use of space make it less feasible to rear the chickens for more days. If the turnaround is short, a farm can rear more chickens, hence making more profit.
In between cycles, the pens also need a three week period before it is used for rearing again.
At present, Toh Thye San is trying to rear 140-day-old chickens, half of a chicken's general lifespan.
Toh Thye San's main aim is to replicate the chicken meat from at least 20 years ago, with as little antibiotics as possible. "We only feed the chickens antibiotics if they fall sick, which is not often," reveals Toh. "When one does fall sick, however, the disease spreads quickly, and the entire pen might be affected, which is why we have to act fast."
Why Toh Thye San Farm's chickens stand out
Toh Thye San (Gesing) is merely two of over 130 chicken farms in West Malaysia exporting live chickens to Singapore, but once cooked, the hormone-free chickens clearly taste different from the general stock.
According to Toh, the chickens differ because of the age they grow to, the peaceful and cageless environment they grow up in, and their food, 100 per cent natural feed and the lack of antibiotics.
Even at 8,000 chickens per pen, the pens have have the flocking density of a commercial Broiler pen. The chickens are left to mature in one pen for their entire lives, as moving them around will stress them out.
The feed (that is mixed by the farm in a different facility) is made up of corn, wheat, organic selenium, vitamins, orgacids, probiotics and some five spice flavouring known as 'Indian herbs'. Two kilograms of corn makes 1kg of chicken meat. "Chickens are like humans when it comes to their diet," Toh said lovingly. "They need a balance of nutrients, as well as flavour. We add five spice powder to their feed, and they are happier eating it."
In addition, the chickens are fed with distilled tap water. There is a distilling facility in each farm.
The adage "you are what you eat" fits in perfectly here: Toh once experimented with garlic powder in the chickens' feed. The result was garlic-flavoured chicken meat. "It was fun, but who would buy it?" he chuckled.
How ethical is the farm?
Though the chickens were kept in pens, I saw no cages, and the chickens had space to fully stretch their wings. Some even flew in the pens.
The beaks of the day-old Naked Necks were trimmed, but Toh claims that is general practice in the industry for aggressive chickens. "The white broiler chickens do not need de-beaking because they are not as aggressive as the red chickens. The white broilers are slaughtered at a much younger age of 25 to 33 days. In that period, the natural aggression of the chickens do not show."
Toh adds, "We treat the chickens with respect and care. We don't throw them around, and every morning a herder will go in to herd them. The herder is the same person for their entire lifespan."
In addition, the chickens are given things to peck on, and there is plenty of natural light and breeze in the pens.
It took Bincho of Hua Bee's chef Asai Masashi three hours to interrogate the chicken farm about their practices.
Toh has dreams of letting the chickens roam free on land in the future.
Celine Asril is guilty of taking pictures of cute animals, and of all her meals. She's currently concerned about the state of the overfished world and upset about unsustainable practices and would like to do something about it.