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Desi Chicken

It was the same spot from Amelia’s show, Chicken Shop Date. Only more decrepit, not at all like a set from a glitzy, high-definition video. A cracked window with a sign that read ‘Do Not Touch’ had me narrowing my eyes like a cartoon detective. The downgraded hygiene rating even had the 3 scratched out. Old Google Map reviews described it as the Number One chicken shop in Twickenham. But recent comments told a different story – soggy buns, grey chicken, rubber taste, and hairy fries. JohnEngland, who drove down every Tuesday from Slough for the filet burger, wrote, “it’s shit now, not like it was”. 

Maybe the grey drumsticks were plucked from London’s sky. And the Arctic snap, my punishment for not buying Uniqlo’s heat-tech gloves earlier. When I opened the door, I wasn’t greeted by the warmth of friers and the smell of crispy batter, but by cold tiles. A man was holding a drumstick and shouting in Punjabi. I couldn’t make out the exact words, but there was something about a “lying chicken”. I thought of Amelia’s bossmen. Nameless, dark-skinned bodies behind the counter. Her show wasn’t a Heart of Darkness scenario but more sinister. Ethnic men in the denaturalised setting of a chippie, filmed as they sleazed a white woman for jokes. The chicken shop was the perfect contrast between her cultural authority and the men. It highlighted her desirability and their crimes. Even with life success, they couldn’t overcome their desire. 

The man on the other side had a name tag, which was surprising given the shop’s recent decline. It read Ali Jan. Ali was defensive, lowering his voice, adopting a British tone. It’s not the shop’s fault bro. This year chickens not getting lovely grains cause shortages in Ukraine. Don’t worry brother, chickens 100% desi, but even chicken compromise.

I focused on the first man, who was wearing a burgundy suit with trainers. The hand holding the drumstick had a large ring with a green stone that twinkled under the tube lights.

He switched to English, “That’s no desi chicken!”, and turned to me to cause a scene.

I scanned my brain for associations, I hadn’t heard the phrase in a while. It has nothing to do with the cultural identity or the politics of the chicken, but with provenance. Desi chicken translates as organic and authentic chicken. Chickens that wander the agricultural heartlands of Punjab. Though more often, wobble around dirty open-air sewers in Pakistani cities. The consumption of desi chicken isn’t just an ethical or healthy choice. Folk wisdom suggests it reduces cholesterol, boosts testosterone, and fights cancer. It’s also a stance by the provincial farmer against industrial chicken farming. Desi chicken is a rejection of the urban middle classes that leave the land for air-con and crypto. Inner-city broiler chickens, fed on antibiotics and fatteners, symbolised lost ways, office cubicles, and despair. But not desi chicken – defiant, roaming wild, consumed only for its strength. Desi chicken announces the return to indigenous living. Men from villages, unable to break class barriers, don’t only consume chicken. They ingest its desiness, the land it roams on, the vitality of a life grazed with freedom. Finally, they feast on meat that produces Meaty Heterosexuality. A Corporal Barrier against the land-owning, dubious, scrawny corporates. 

But desi chicken in London?

“Brother there’s no desi chicken in London.” 

He turned, this time his bulging arms catching in his blazer, “They come from Oxford. There are halal organic desi farms there.”

By now a colleague had joined Ali and they folded their arms like it was the end of the matter. I looked at the menu, Special Price Desi Fried Chicken: £6.99. Fucking hell. 7 pounds for 2 drumsticks. 

“Listen, I’ll pay for his meal”, I handed Ali the money.

But a large, hairy hand landed on my shoulder. 

“I can’t let you do that. They call it halal for a reason.”

“Know when it’s time to let go.”

The suited man registered my comment as a masculine declaration and changed his mind.

“Let me at least offer you a cigarette.” 

We went outside and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges. It had no health labels, a tell that it came straight from Pakistan.

I lit the cigarette and inhaled both cold air and stale tobacco. A pensioner with an old, saggy pit bull went into the shop singing an anthem for a war that I couldn’t place.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because I’ve never heard anyone ask for desi chicken here before.” 

“It’s the principle.”

“Look at the place, do you think they’ve ever sold organic, desi chicken?”

Maybe this was a fault of mine. I associated organic tags with boutique grocery shops in Richmond. Not with the post-war diversity of Twickenham and Isleworth. Servicemen pubs and clubs swimming with sad, dark ale. Chicken shops that felt like teenage robberies. 

“A friend told me about it at work, they first started this trend in Hounslow.”

“What a friend.”

“Let me offer you a ride, for your help.”

*** 

He opened the door to a black Mercedes with tinted windows. Yeah, never mind and I started to walk away.

“Brother where you going?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got a long way to go.”

“I have to make one stop for the embassy and then I can take you anywhere.”

“Embassy?”

That explained the suit and the trainers. And the car from a Desi Drill video. But I got in anyway. Before starting the engine, he took out his phone. There was a wallpaper of him, his wife, and his teenage daughter in a picturesque village. He opened the restaurant page for the chicken shop on Google Maps. He wrote, “lying desi kitchen”, and left a 1-star review.

As he drove away from Isleworth, we passed the war memorial. I learned that he worked out every day, with no rest days, even when I insisted breaks were necessary. He deemed rest unmanly. He spoke of his time posted in Delhi. His fondest memory was how his posting included accommodation and a canteen. Now he received a £600 housing stipend and house-shared in Hounslow. They even made him pay for parking. I wondered why an embassy driver was paying for parking. He described the political situation in Pakistan as “not good”. 

I thought of desi chicken the entire way from West to East London. I imagined his village with a small lake with migratory birds. I thought of seasonal farming, content livestock, honest labour, and clean meals. Quite unlike me. A scrawny corporate man, researching Amelia’s chicken shops. “Making visible the invisible bossmen of the white gaze”. Then there was the mould in my flat, the grey chickens, and the unbreakable limescale in my kettle.

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