Kadaknath chicken: A breed apart

The indigenous Kadaknath chicken breed is known for its black meat. With numerous health benefits and unique flavour, it has the culinary world sitting up and taking notice. Might this be the next big thing in protein?

Chicken is possibly one of the most popular meats across the world. Apart from the health benefits over red meat, cost is also a crucial factor for chicken’s widespread fan-following. In India, the poultry industry has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few decades as one of the fastest growing agricultural segments, with the country now the fifth largest producer of eggs and ninth largest producer of poultry meat in the world. With advancement in technology, veterinary care and adoption of humane treatment for livestock, several options such as free-range chicken have also become more widely available in recent years. One of India’s greatest advantages with regard to poultry farming is the range of indigenous breeds across the country. One such breed, the Kadaknath, has recently made quite an impression on the culinary world.

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Kadaknath chicken, also known as Kali Masi is the only animal product in India with a GI tag. It was originally reared by rural and tribal communities in Jhabua and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh.
Image courtesy Jegadeeswaran Natarajan

The Kadaknath chicken is an indigenous breed that was originally reared by tribal communities in Jhabua and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Also known as Kali Masi, it is the only animal product with a GI tag in India. The tag, though, didn’t come easy, with the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh competing for it, until the decision was made in MP’s favour in 2018. This breed’s meat is black in colour, along with its bones and organs too. It is, in fact, also considered healthier than regular poultry owing to a lower fat content alongside high protein, amino acid and iron content. This kind of chicken breed with black meat is not just found in India though, there’s also the Ayam Cemani from Indonesia and Malaysia and the Chinese Silkie. In India though, Kadaknath is the only breed with this kind of unique characteristics.

While urban centres have only now started to discover and explore Kadaknath chicken, tribal communities have been rearing and consuming this indigenous breed for decades. “One of the reasons why tribal communities,” says Alka Jena, food historian and culinary custodian, “have reared Kadaknath chicken is because unlike the broiler variety that are reared in most poultry farms, this breed doesn’t need specialised feed. In fact, these chickens can thrive even on kitchen waste. Aside from the ease of rearing, there are, of course, the health benefits.”

The culinary expert goes on to add, “Tribal communities have long discovered the health benefits of Kadaknath chicken. Aside from lower cholesterol and fat content of the meat, they also believe it has healing properties. The blood of Kadaknath chicken is used to treat several issues such as asthma, post delivery issues in women, pulmonary diseases and other chronic ailments.”

With growing awareness of these health benefits, demand has soared and a kilogram of the chicken can fetch prices as high as Rs 1,500. Naturally, Kadaknath has today caught the fancy of poultry farmers across the country. A rather famous example is former Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose plans to rear Kadaknath chicken at his farm in Ranchi were unfortunately curtailed owing to a bird flu outbreak earlier this year. Even governments in several states have endorsed the breed, encouraging and introducing Kadaknath farming. The state government in Madhya Pradesh, where the Kadaknath originated, recently allocated Rs 10 crore towards Kadaknath rearing initiatives. In Tripura, government-backed veterinary scientists have successfully introduced the breed in the state, and many poultry farmers have shown interest.

But it’s not just poultry farmers who are interested. The high demand and returns has seen interest from many quarters across Indian states. Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, and a veteran of the industry, recalls his first encounter with Kadaknath: “I was chatting with one of my suppliers, who dealt in fish, about business when I was at the Koli fish festival in Mumbai. While we all know about depleting seafood resources and are all concerned about it, he had struck upon a new idea. To start rearing Kadaknath chicken. I had heard of this breed before but realised how much potential it had given that even fish dealers were now considering it as a viable business opportunity.”

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Chef Vikas Seth has been experimenting with Kadaknath chicken for an upcoming venture. He uses a unique cooking technique to make the black chicken.
Image courtesy Chef Vikas Seth

Like Chef Vikas, the rest of the culinary world too, started to take notice of this new breed. As a healthy alternative, Kadaknath chicken works well, but as an ingredient, it requires a different approach from regular white meat. “The meat in itself is quite gamey and has a different texture. It’s that extra bite that sets it apart. Although not extensively, but we have used it on occasion when we have catered to private parties,” says the chef, and then, is generous enough to let us in on a secret to cooking Kadaknath. “We have conducted a few trials with Kadaknath, to see how it fits into the menu of our upcoming venture. We make a stew or curry with it, where the chicken is cooked over a long time, so as to make it tender. The trick we use is to cook it in chicken stock. Although we don’t use Kadaknath bones for the stock since the recipe is a meat-on-bone one, this flavoursome stock intensifies all the flavours of the chicken.”

Kadaknath could well be the next big thing in protein, Chef Vikas believes. “Although chicken is widely eaten in our country, there is a segment of diners who are opting for healthier proteins such as fish, given that many broiler varieties are notorious for use of growth hormones and other chemicals that can be harmful. But perhaps even more relevant is the fact that, at the end of the day, broiler meat is quite bland in terms of flavours and textures. The health benefits aside, it’s the taste and texture of Kadaknath chicken that makes it so attractive. The kind of satisfaction that you get from this interesting texture and flavour leaves you feeling more satiated.”

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Not just the meat, Kadaknath chicken’s bones and organs are black as well. It has lower fat content than regular chicken and is also high on protein and iron.

It seems diners have similar thoughts, as Alka Jena confirms. “Kadaknath chicken looks quite different from regular chicken, and that perhaps is the biggest surprise when it’s presented to a consumer. But in terms of flavour and texture, it is far superior. It’s already making waves with chefs in India but it’s only a matter of time until it gains a mainstream following.”

Sourcing is a concern that is gradually being addressed, and although some farmers are taking to Kadaknath, it’s still not as widely available as it would need to be, in order to become a mainstream hit. But given its adoption by an increasing number of chefs, government endorsement, and, of course, the high returns, this issue should find a speedy redressal.

With sustainability being a prime concern in today’s world, it has become increasingly important to focus on the local, especially in the food industry. And when we have such a rich treasure trove of ingredients, including previously unexplored kinds that have not received mainstream attention, focusing on local becomes an altogether pleasurable experience. Not to mention the positive impact on local communities and economies.

So, the next time you want to try a protein with a difference, why not give Kadaknath chicken a shot? It’s healthier, tastier and will most definitely add an interesting shade to your Instagram food reel.

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