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Updated: May 21, 2014 17:00 IST
THE RELUCTANT GOURMET

New flavour takes wing

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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PACKED WITH PROTEIN The emu
PACKED WITH PROTEIN The emu

Emu farms are steadily sprouting across the country as emu meat finds it way into restaurants and home kitchens

The emu has landed. Figuratively, that is. After all this astonishingly ugly and surprisingly tasty bird is as flightless as it is low key. Despite making its first appearance in the mid 1990s, and populating farms from Guntur to Patiala, in most big cities, emu meat is still seen as an oddity.

However, over the next few years it's inevitable that the emu will find its way to your favourite restaurants and eventually home kitchens given the rate at which the birds are being bred in India. Add all the good press from health junkies. Tasting like a gamey red meat, it is low fat, high in iron and Vitamin B12 and packed with protein.

Right now, with new farms steadily sprouting up across the country the biggest revenue comes from selling chicks, not meat. A young emu can sell for anything from Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 7,000. However, as this largely disorganised, roughly ten-year-old industry begins to settle down, farmers now realise it's time to convince consumers to pick up their forks.

Contrary to the stereotype of the conservative Indian eater, people recently introduced to the meat are diving into emu sausages, biryani and kebabs with gusto. S.N. Chandrasekar, who's been running the VC Emu farm in Namakkal district, Tamil Nadu, since 2007 has 5,000 birds and 5,000 chicks. He decided to be proactive and started one of the country's first emu-only restaurants last year. “We serve Chinese emu tandoori, cutlets, emu strips and hot dogs,” he says, adding that his answer to chicken 65, Emu 605, is particularly popular.

Chandrasekar's is just one of the estimated 500 farms in Tamil Nadu. The head of Sree Sakthi Farms, who calls himself ‘Emu. R.A. Rajendira Kumar,' tells me he's president of the Tamil Nadu Emu Association, a fact borne out by his picture on the website cuddling a flabbergasted bird. He says he was a transport conductor till 2000, when he was inspired by a thriving farm in Guntur. He says Andhra Pradesh has the most farms followed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. More recently Goa, Orissa, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh are getting into the business.

While there is reportedly still some reluctance in Australia about eating the national bird, emus are settling and breeding all over the world. They're hardy and can be reared in temperatures ranging from 1 to 58 degrees Celsius. Farmers can raise them on marginal land they're not using for crops. The fat is used to make oils, the leather's popular for bags and even the feathers, egg shells and claws are used, usually in the fashion industry.

Nakkala Laxma Reddy, managing director of the Golden Emu Farms , based in Medak District, about 60 Km from Hyderabad, is a former poultry farmer who began rearing emus in 1998, the dark days of bird flu, when he realised they were much hardier than hens. “I purchased the birds from Visakhapatnam, from a farmer who says he brought them from Texas. At that time there was no market, no support. My children who were in the U.S. studied the business and said go ahead.”

He says his main customers are caterers who make food for parties. Stating that the bird is economical he says “One bird gives 20 kilos of boneless meat.”

Vinay Sharma, a former banker from New York, who runs the Tall Bird Emu Farm in Gujarat estimates there are above 5,000 farms in India, a number that increases everyday. “The industry is very well organised in South Africa,” he says, talking about how the South Africans have reared the bird since 1978. “Business has been picking up in India over the last five years,” says Vinay, adding “Andhra Pradesh alone has about 1,400 farms now.”

It's a business that's drawn all kinds of people. “Corporate guys, ex-bankers, 50 per cent are farmers … They need very little land… 10,000 sq ft can accommodate 70 to 100 birds.”

And are the birds as mean as they look? “Not at all,” he chuckles. “I have a four-year-old son who plays with them.”

Keywords: emu meat

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