You might find its freakishly butch legs rather repulsive, but believe it or not, the Dong Tao chicken is incredibly popular in Vietnam. Once reserved for royalty and ritual offerings, the rare breed is now prized by chicken breeders and its meat is served in exclusive restaurants that cater to the wealthy.
An adult Dong Tao chicken can grow up to weigh three to six kilograms, with legs as thick as a human’s wrist. The hens are generally white, while the cocks have colorful feathers. Dong Tao meat is considered far more delicious than regular chickens, explaining its high demand and incredibly steep price tag.
A kilo of Dong Tao chicken meat is priced at a whopping VND350,000 to 400,000 (US$17-19), depending on the type. Breeding stock costs VND100,000 to 120,000 per chicken, but fine specimens with thick, strong legs can be worth up to VND5 – 6 million ($238-286) each. Prices escalate further during Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – when Dong Tao chickens are in high demand. In fact, in 2013, a farmer from Ho Chi Minh City refused to part with a pair of chickens for anything less than VND50 million ($2,500)!
While the peculiar chickens originated from Dong Tao commune in Hung Yen province, the current largest purebred farm is located in Dong Hoa commune, Vietnam’s Dong Nai province. This farm, owned by Vu Ngoc Tuan, has 400 pairs of breeding stock, and supplies dozens of Dong Tao chickens to restaurants in HCM City every day.
Tuan, who first purchased 10 Dong Tao chickens “for fun,” has spent several years trying to understand the right way to breed them. He learned the hard way that the strange birds do not like living in captivity and constantly fight with each other when caged. He now raises them on a spacious farm with plenty of room and exercise. According to him, this improves the taste and quality of the meat.
It takes a year of free-range farming for Tuan’s chickens to fully mature. He revealed that Dong Tao hens tend to lay fewer eggs than regular ones, and their unusually large feet make the hatching process difficult. So he has actually devised a manual hatching technique to preserve as many eggs as possible.
Raising Dong Tao chickens seems like a lot of trouble, but Tuan says it’s all worth the effort. The older the chickens grow, the firmer, crisper and sweeter their meat. Van Dinh Ha, a chicken farmer from Trung Dinh hamlet, agrees: “The bird is in high demand, but also in short supply.” So the potential for profits is far higher than with a regular poultry farm.
“My birds attract many people from neighbouring Hai Duong, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh and Hanoi,” Van added. “The sales are so good that now there are only two roosters left in the coop. Last year, my income from chicken rearing was up 60 percent.”
Luu Minh Chinh, a trader who deals with chicken-rearing households, says that the Dong Tao never fails to attract wealthy visitors. “In 2012, the Japanese prince Akishino visited my commune to see the chickens. Since then, the Dong Tao chicken has enjoyed even greater publicity,” he said. Chinh’s business has received attention from the tourism industry as well. And countries such as England and Japan are supposedly considering importing the breed for research.
For now, the biggest buyers of Dong Tao chickens are upmarket restaurants in HCM City. These restaurants frequently come up with new dishes made from Dong Tao meat, such as stewed chicken with mushrooms, and stewed feet with Chinese herbs. According to Nguyen Tat Han, general manager of Non La restaurant in HCM City, diners repeatedly ordered Dong Tao chicken but the restaurant did not have enough to offer during the last Tet season. And after the festival, there was no stock left because suppliers didn’t have anything to deliver.
Some reports suggest that Dong Tao chicken is sold on the internet too. Perhaps you’d like to try it some time?