Something we forget in the perfectly butchered and plastic-wrapped grocery store meat aisles of the world is that once upon a time, you wouldn’t be eating meat unless you killed it yourself. For the most part, people don’t really slaughter and butcher their own animals anymore unless they’re Amish, a farmer, up on that hipster butchering trend, or don’t live in America.
When I recently got the opportunity to learn to slaughter and butcher a live chicken in Portugal and make a traditional head-to-tail dish with it, I embraced the offer with a mixture of fear and excitement.
Something I’ve learned about the Portuguese is that they are the masters of “waste not, want not.” From saving the minuscule remnants in a nearly empty wine bottle to create homemade wine vinegar or using the water from boiled shellfish to make a rice dish for tomorrow’s dinner, they know how to make use of every last bit in the kitchen. That goes double for arroz de cabidela, a Portuguese rice dish that uses almost every part of the chicken—even the blood—that’s collected from a freshly murdered chicken.
I’ve always held the belief that if you are going to eat meat, you should probably know what it’s like to kill one yourself. That was also part of what motivated me to partake in the whole chicken killing thing, but as the time approached, I became more and more content to slink back into my happy state of lazily murderless ignorance on the matter. Especially when I saw the chicken, which turned out to be a rooster because, you know, language barrier.
He was kind of cute in this mangy looking, scratch-your-eyes-out-if-he-could sort of way and I immediately felt like peacing out on the whole scene, especially when I realized that we wouldn’t be killing this poor guy with the huge butcher cleaver that I imagined (one fatal swoop and the whole thing would be over), but instead with a common kitchen knife on a little wooden stump. I immediately imagined Ser Rodrik’s botched beheading from Game of Thrones. I would be the asshole that would give this rooster an dishonorable death because I would wimp out and not put my back into it. Fuck.
Luckily, Betta and Christina, my two Portuguese rooster slaughtering experts, were there to save the day. Did I mention neither of these ladies speak a word of English? The whole slaughtering event was the most intense game of charades I have ever played.
The murder weapon on a lovely hand embroidered tablecloth.
Since these ladies have been slaughtering roosters since before I was born, they inevitably had some pro tricks from years of practice. First things first: in order to properly catch the rooster and keep it from scratching you/escaping your clutches, you have to hold the little guy with his wings behind his back. Then, in order to keep the soon-to-be-spilt blood from coagulating, you fill a little bowl with vinegar, bend the rooster’s neck back to make the veins tight, and cut across its jugular while keeping the blade of the knife pointing down to make sure the blood runs down it into the bowl. Apparently it can spray all over you otherwise.
At this point, the rooster was dead and its body was ever so slightly twitching. I was in a state of complete shock while it bled out into the bowl. While this was happening, a group of dogs were barking at us on the other side of the fence because they wanted up on this chicken for themselves. Not stressful at all. But there was no time for freaking out because this rooster butchering business is actually a pretty quick ordeal, from start to finish in about 15 minutes.
Then, on to the plucking. First, you have to put the chicken in a bucket and dump a pot of just-boiled water over it so that the feathers loosen up. Which was weird.
Once the rooster was entirely bald, and the skin from its feet peeled, it was time to remove the organs, the part I was dreading second most. We kept the heart and most of the organs for the rice and discarded the intestines. Then it was time to break the rooster down, which was the only part I had done before, so I was grateful for some familiar territory at this point.
Fast forward to the next day, when the chicken had been sitting for a day and was ready to be cooked. The blood rice is actually a surprisingly simple dish to make: First, you have to get one large, diced onion nice and browned in a large pot, then cover it with all the chicken bits, including the organs and feet.
Then cover it in wine because wine makes everything better, even rooster hearts. Once that’s boiled together and the rooster is browned, remove it from the bowl and add the rice to the dish. And then, once the rice has begun to thicken up, it’s time for the extra special ingredient: rooster blood
Stir that baby up and let it simmer for a bit. Then you are done. Voilà.
Rooster in blood rice is served on cute little terra cotta rooster plates, as if I could forget what it was that I was eating.