Chicken dinner in Yibang
A quick slit of the knife is followed by a flurry of commotion, the pitter patter of blood, then the slow, wretched spasms of death, before finally succumbing to silence. Hens squabble over the thick, red, blood spilled onto the pavement, showing little compassion for their freshly killed compatriot. Every chicken you see on the tea road, meets his or her end this way. The knife awaits them all.
Thankfully for the chickens, this is not an everyday occurrence, but a special occasion, usually to honor guests. As the chicken is bled dry, plucked & gutted, I am reminded that meat is a luxury, and many in the developing world eat vegetarian not by choice, but by necessity.
Nothing is wasted. For us delicate city dwellers, it can be confronting to see an animal's head, or feet, surface in our soup. As an honoured guest, I have been served a bowl of rice, laced with an entire string of yellow ovaries, an assembly line of eggs in the making. Next is a dish of congealed blood, tender & trembling like tofu, followed by bony fragments of chopped up chicken in soup, served with a long ribbon of intestine, tough & rubbery, as you would expect from a scrawny, free range, high mountain chicken. Out of respect for the animal's sacrifice, I have, I confess, eaten them all.
An ignoble & unsightly end, but a delicious one
Yet flicking through my photos of Yunnan, I realize I have a soft spot for our fine feathered friends. When sourcing maocha in the village, we spend a lot of time sitting on the farmer's porch, drinking tea & watching the farmyard animals sun themselves and squabble over food. There is a hidden beauty and pageantry to be found in the chickens of Yunnan. Here are some of my favourites.
Black speckled hen in Man Gong village, Yibang
Cha Ma Gu Dao, Yibang ancient town
Love birds in Ding Jia Zhai
The two birds below reminded me of feathered velociraptors. Dinosaur on your dish anyone?
Velociraptors in Yiwu ancient town 易武古镇
Long term readers of this blog may remember this territorial rooster guarding his maocha in Yiwu
"De Niro" Fighting cock in Mansa village, Yiwu - "You talkin to me?"
Chickens have a lot more personality than people give them credit for.
I spent a lot of time on the family farm as a kid, and later studied agriculture for 6 years. As a schoolboy I wanted to be a country vet like James Herriot of All Creatures Great and Small. Working with animals seemed like a great idea, until my class was ordered to clean out a year's worth of droppings from the chook shed. The stifling odor & dust will stay with me for life. I have had my fair share of chicken shit.
Later on, we watched the dissection of a stillborn calf, and the gruesome reality of cutting animals open, combined with the stench of offal persuaded me I was not cut out for veterinary science, or "animal husbandry" as it was then called at my school. But a fascination with animal intelligence & behaviour has stayed with me for life, and during our earlier trips to Yunnan, I decided we should pay homage to them on our puer wrappers.
Tea Urchin 2011 wrappers
n 2011, we featured tea drinkers on our puer wrappers, old sages with wispy beards, and elegant women serving tea in qipao's. Our designs celebrated the enjoyment of tea, but was not very specific to Yunnan. So in 2012, we decided to design our wrappers around a more personal theme, our life on the tea road.
We featured the humble chicken on the wrapper of our 2012 Spring Luo Shui Dong, and 2012 Spring Man Zhuan cakes. We used photo references from our blog to make the illustrations as true to life as possible. Some sharp eyed readers like Eric from Disciple of the Leaf, have already cottoned on to this little game.
Left: Chickens in Gua Feng Zhai. Right: Tea Urchin 2012 Spring Man Zhuan wrapper
Left: Proud mother of 12 in Lao Ban Zhang. Right: Tea Urchin 2012 Spring Luo Shui Dong wrapper
And that grizzled fighting cock of Mansa? Turns out his owner was only 9 years old, and earned his pocket money by cock fighting. We featured the both of them on our 2012 Spring Wan Gong wrapper. Which made it 3 cover appearances for the chicken, and it wasn't even the year of the rooster!
Dusty pigs & chickens are not usually the first thing that comes to mind when you drink a premium tea, but there's an appealing honesty in wrapping a puer cake in a slice of life from the tea farm. Besides, chickens may be a two-legged source of protein for the farmers, but they are also gregarious creatures with distinct charm & personality, deserving of a little love. They enjoy an intimate and symbiotic relationship with the tea farmers, and without them, life on the tea road would certainly not be as much fun. Here's to the plucky mountain chickens of Yunnan!
Feeding time in Bang Wei village, Simao