The big bird in India is sl
owly moving beyond the Christmas roast to a round-the-year dish
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…One steaming turkey biryani.
The second day brought turkey shami kebabs; the third day, turkey ham, the fourth day, satay, and so on. You can ditch all the other birds in that Christmas ditty for this feathered fowl, seeing as how it has started to become the centrepiece of the Indian Christmas meal.
While nowhere close to the American appetite for the fowl, we have started nibbling at the bird in our enthusiastic embrace of Western Yuletide culture, ordering roasted and smoked birds from restaurants and meateries. (Godrej Nature’s Basket reported a 40% rise in whole turkey sales between 2016 and 2017).
But even as the turkey raises its wattled head in our homes all but once a year, a few evangelists are trying to spread the bird. In 2012 Sameer Mathur quit as director of digital at GE to make turkey an everyday meat. “Indians have developed a wider palate and are open to newer tastes. They want more than chicken,” says Mathur, who launched Dancing Turkeys, which deals in fresh, frozen and cooked turkey, duck and chicken, in 2013.
He first looked into why turkey hadn’t hit Indian tables: the bird was big (an average dressed bird is 4kg) while Indians prefer to consume smaller portions, cooked daily; turkey has a richer, darker taste; and it is more expensive — Rs 600-750 a kg, compared to Rs 160 per kg of broiler. Ergo, turkey hasn’t got far.
Mathur realised that selling the whole bird might not be immediately successful. So he collaborated with chefs to create new processed products like turkey seekh kebab, and dishes like turkey biryani, burgers, sandwiches, and satay. He sold these at his two takeaways in Sector 51, Gurgaon and CR Park, Delhi. “Initially sceptical of the taste, some customers wanted a money-back guarantee if they didn’t like it,” says Mathur, who hasn’t yet issued a refund.
For RJ Khurafati Nitin, turkey gets a bigger vote than chicken. “Chicken doesn’t have its own flavour, it takes the flavour of the spices and marinade; but turkey has a subtle flavour of its own and is juicier,” says the radio jockey who cooks it once or twice a month. He buys the bird whole, cuts it himself and cooks small portions. He has air-fried it, and even made a Mughlai curry of it. “The trick is to throw in a bit of brown sugar when you’re cooking it to bring out the flavours,” he recommends.
In Rajiv Gupta’s kitchen, turkey has all but replaced chicken. The education entrepreneur was recommended turkey because it is a leaner meat than chicken, with lower calories and saturated fats. “Moreover, I found turkeys were farmed more hygienically than chicken, and were safer birds to consume,” says the Gurgaon-resident, whose household diet includes turkey 8-10 times a month.
Processed turkey does well in urban markets. At Godrej Nature’s Basket, customers veer towards turkey ham, bacon, smoked breast and cutlets. Rural Tamil Nadu however prefers the bird in a biryani or as a variant of the old favourite, Turkey 65.
About a decade ago, the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS), Chennai, developed two varieties of low-weighing turkeys — the Nandanam Turkey I and II — weighing between 4.5-7 kg at adult weight. Their relatively low weight spawned a small F&B cottage industry down the highways of Tamil Nadu, where roadside eateries found the economics of cooking one large bird instead of several smaller chickens, practical.
“The Vaankholi or turkey biryani was priced at Rs 5-10 more than chicken biryani, but the dressing yield or consumable meat was 10% greater than chicken,” says Dr PS Mahesh, director of Central Poultry Development Organisation and Training Institute, Bengaluru which has been promoting turkey breeding since 1990. Turkey farming has taken off in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab and Kerala, says Dr Mahesh.
For the turkey to notch better sales, a comprehensive breeding and marketing plan is needed, says Dr R Prabakaran, former VC at TANUVAS. “For starters, we need better germ plasm. The turkeys we’re breeding today are inbred descendants of germ plasm acquired by the Central Avian Research Institute in UP, about 30 years ago,” says Dr Prabakaran. “Secondly, we need smaller birds because that’s what the Indian market wants.”
But to really ‘massify’ the turkey, Sameer Mathur suggests recasting it in the popular imagination. “To take it beyond the roast,” he says, “to dishes like turkey ‘butter chicken’ and turkey nihari.”