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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 Thye 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.