Gobble gobble: The Christmas bird


While most of us think of turkey as imported meat, there are farms breeding it in India


 “… And grandpapa always will toddle down, all the way to Newgate Market, to buy the turkey, which he engages a porter to bring home behind him in triumph” – Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Dinner’, 1836

A few years later, in ‘A Christmas Carol’, published in 1843, Dickens again alludes to the Christmas turkey, when a freshly reformed Ebenezer Scrooge orders a turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim” as a gift to his poor employee Bob Cratchit’s family.

According to an article on the British Library website, while the “goose had been established as Christmas fare since the time of Elizabeth I”, the “turkey too, had a long tradition of Christmas consumption – since the 16th century when it was introduced to Europe by the conquistadors”.

On the table

In India, the turkey’s arrival is more recent. Globalisation and the increasing exposure to Western cultures helped put the bird on restaurant menus as festive fare. Imported turkey meat for cooking was available in India since 2000, says chef Sabyasachi Gorai, and last year, the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council started marketing the meat here.

But turkey was already being bred in India. “In the early 1990s, the Central Poultry Development Organisation (CPDO) wanted to diversify into breeding poultry other than chicken and started giving farmers duck and turkey chicks,” says director, Central Poultry Development Organisation and Training Institute (CPDOTI), Bengaluru, Mahesh PS.

Initially, turkey farming was introduced in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, he says. An internet search throws up names of turkey farms in West Bengal, Delhi and many other places. (But many of these farms are unorganised and may not breed the birds every year.) It’s in the south – in states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, especially – that it has flourished, says Mahesh.

Turkey meat is healthy. “It is a leaner protein source compared to read meat and even chicken. The breast is lower in calories compared to the legs, thighs and wings,” says nutritionist Kavita Devgan. “It packs in minerals like potassium and zinc and the difficult-to-find selenium and lots of B vitamins. It’s naturally low sodium and lower in cholesterol compared to other meats.”

Still, the demand for turkey remains mostly seasonal. And with this in mind, for most farmers it is a periodic business, with birds being reared for the December festivities – though in Tamil Nadu, Mahesh says, farmers have started breeding a smaller variety of the bird, weighing only about four-five kilograms, which is in demand in restaurant through the year for making biryani.

Farm fresh

Lagishetty Bhoopathi, a poultry farmer in Telangana, started breeding turkeys commercially in 2005 with 100 birds. Today, his farm has about 1000-1200 birds ready in December.

It’s a profitable crop for farmers. “For an investment of approximately `800 – adult birds weigh about six -10 kilograms – the returns are about `250-300 per live kilogram. The profit is about 50 per cent,” says Bhoopathi. But the birds need care. The CPDO gives farmers day-old chicks. “Then for the first 30 days, it is very important to give them proper heat,” says Bhoopathi.

Nutritional needs have to be taken care of. “The chicks need a high-protein diet. We advise farmers to feed them boiled eggs, peas etc. After eight weeks, they can be let out to graze,” says Mahesh. “About 75 per cent of their diet after that consists of greens, 25 per cent is grains. It takes about six months for the birds to reach maturity,” says Mahesh.

About three-four lakh turkeys are bred in India every year, he adds. Of these, about two lakh are consumed during the Christmas season.

Tips for cooking turkey at home

Cook different parts of the bird separately. An entire roast turkey may look great on your Christmas table, but it is difficult to finish unless you are having a big party. And as the leftover meat begins to dry, you’ll have no option but to put it in salads and sandwiches, says chef Sabyasachi Gorai.

The turkey breast cooks very quickly, perhaps even quicker than chicken. It is perfect for grills and roasts, he says. Just marinate with spices and make it into kebabs. The turkey leg is like red meat. You have to braise it and use in curries and stews. The offals, neck and wings are very flavourful and perfect to be had in soups during winter, says Gorai.

(Poulomi Banerjee)