Finger-lickin’ Britain

| 27/03/2008 | Reply

Tennessee,
Maryland, Mississippi and Dixie in Peckham, Rotherham, Dewsbury and
Hackney. An estimated 1,700 fried chicken joints, with their white, red
and blue regalia, currently line UK high streets, tiny bones scattered
over the pavements outside.

Given
their ubiquity, you would think the market has reached saturation
point. Not so, according to Zack Kollias, international director of
Texas Chicken. For him, the UK offers one of the world’s biggest
markets for the food. His US-based firm, with more than 1,600 branches
worldwide, has just launched here. Known as Church’s in the States,
Texas has aggressive plans for growth in the UK – so far there are six
branches, but by the end of April, Kollias hopes to increase this to
25, hitting 50 by the end of the year. “We’re coming to the UK because
it’s a fantastic fried-chicken market and there really is no strong
number-two player to KFC [formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken],” says
Kollias. “There’s probably more than 1,000 individual chicken shops
aside from KFC so clearly the market is accepting the chicken product.”

Originally
a slave dish, breaded or floured chicken made its way on to American
plantation-owners’ plates when African slaves started working as cooks.
Fried in hot fat with thyme, garlic, paprika and bay leaf, and often
served with sweet potato, as a substitute for the African yam, the dish
became a staple southern American food. From soul food to fast food,
fried chicken outlets steadily proliferated through such chains as KFC,
which, by 1960 could boast 400 franchise units across the US and
Canada. But what has made fried chicken so popular in the UK? Could it
be the irresistibly bubbly, amber coating? That satisfying slide of
teeth in oily flesh? Both food industry experts and regular chicken-bar
diners generally agree that it is down to price, ability to fill you
up, portability – and flavour.

Despite
increasing numbers of consumers shunning mass-produced chicken, spurred
on by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver’s Chicken Out!
campaign, the cheap chicken market is steadily growing in the UK. So
far, branches of Texas Chicken have opened in London’s Holloway and
Walthamstow, Bolton and Birmingham, all places with high working-class
and black and minority ethnic populations.

The
Texas Chicken marketing campaign features images of a black family and
a group of teenage boys wearing hoodies and baseball caps. When it
launched, the chain also targeted minority ethnic media, such as
Eastern Eye, Ethnic Now and Asian Lite. “[Black and Asian] communities
prefer spicy chicken, that’s why we run both original and spicy so we
can appeal to everyone,” says Kollias. The spicy variety, marinaded in
black and cayenne peppers, is already selling four times better than
the plainer, “original” counterpart. Both halal and spicy are also
among the company’s biggest global sellers, Kollias points out.

The
increasing number of halal fried chicken shops in the UK is testament
to changing demographic and eating patterns. “The Muslim community here
is growing,” says Enam Ali, chair of the Guild of Bangladeshi
Restaurateurs. “Fried chicken is cheap – [people who eat it] are young,
students, with limited pocket money.” Masood Khawaja, president of the
Halal Food Authority, says, “A great percentage of third generation
Muslims are not eating the original cuisine of their families – they
want more takeaways, more convenience foods.”

Meanwhile,
research company Mintel has found that the heaviest users of chicken
bars are younger, less affluent consumers mainly from the D and C
socioeconomic groups.

Not
everyone is happy with how the high street is changing. Tottenham MP
David Lammy, who used to work in a branch of KFC, has linked chicken
joints with the “poverty of ambition in our inner cities” that do not
allow black neighbourhoods to prosper. “When I walk down Seven Sisters
Road [in London’s Tottenham], I don’t see dozens of distinctive
restaurants or boutiques showcasing the best our community has to
offer. Instead I see an endless stream of burger bars and fried-chicken
shops, flogging cheap calories to the schoolkids and office workers,”
he has said.

“Let’s
just grasp the nettle here,” says black comic Paul Ricketts, whose
stand-up observations often turn to this issue. “All black areas have
loads of fried chicken outlets. It is a socio-economic thing. Chicken
is one of the cheapest birds you can get. When people go on about
smelly food, what they really mean is fried chicken, and they’re having
a dig at the people eating it – we have an era where we don’t mention
class any more, we just call them chavs or hoodies – it’s a term for
working-class scum.”

People
all over the country find fried chicken delicious. I don’t normally eat
fried chicken – the batter is often too soggy and fatty – but I find
the spicy version of Texas Chicken surprisingly tasty and I could be
tempted to go back for more.

At
Halal Southern Fried Chicken in London’s Brick Lane, they lace their
hot wing batter with chilli powder, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Most
customers are men in their 20s. The story is the same further down the
road at Al-Badar Fried Chicken and Curry Restaurant, where their hot
wings are coated in cinnamon, coriander and fresh and crushed chillies.
Manager Amer Salim differentiates his product from the nearby KFC,
which, he says, caters to another market. “In London’s Tower Hamlets,
the Bangladeshi community like spicy with more and more chilli,” he
says. “Fried chicken in KFC is not spicy.” Meanwhile, Shelly, 25, is
enjoying chicken and chips with her brother and her 15-month-old son in
a KFC in Hackney. “I just like the flavouring – spicy with herbs,” she
says. Her 12-year-old brother Lerick says he loves the hot wings
“because they’re spicy”.

At
Caribbean takeaway Soulfood Shack in London’s Islington, co-owner Ivor
Caesar says he sells halal meat, but not just for religious reasons.
“It’s because people see halal as safer and healthier as they drain all
the blood from the chicken.” They are about to start selling spicy
fried chicken along with their jerk and barbecue wings at their
customers’ requests. “Fried chicken, it’s like soul food,” says Caesar,
who is from Jamaica. “When you come into a West Indian shop, you expect
to see fried chicken. It’s a home thing, it’s a black thing.” But this
will be “nothing like KFC or commercialised fried chicken”, he says.
“Our chicken will be real, home-cooked chicken, Caribbean-style,
marinated overnight in the natural way.” This means using pimentos,
Scotch bonnet peppers, black pepper, sweet peppers, flour, spring
onions and garlic, fried in an open deep-fat fryer so it’s crispy.

Tomorrow
he will eat fried chicken with baked macaroni at his mum’s for Sunday
lunch. “Fried chicken, man, it’s part of our culture, trust me.”

Category: Europe, Meat & Poultry, The Americas

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