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January 22, 2013

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Popular Spring Festival dish grows costly, rarer

CAPON, or neutered rooster, a traditional Shanghai dish for Spring Festival, is becoming more expensive and rarer, in part because there are fewer people who know how to castrate the birds.

Capon is popular among elderly Shanghainese as the fowl is fatter, with tender meat.

Dong Zhanggen, 65, one of them, said he has castrated tens of thousands of roosters in the past 40 years.

He said roosters are aggressive in nature and like to fight each other. As a result, though roosters may eat a lot, they don't get fat.

"The only way to improve their quality is to castrate them, which will reduce their male hormones and turn them tender," he said.

While the price of capons has risen to more than 200 yuan (US$32.13), double or triple the cost of an average chicken, the number sold has dropped dramatically. Chicken farmers are less likely to raise them due to high feeding costs during a longer growth period and the risks of killing them during castration.

At the same time, rooster castration is a dying skill - the city may have only five "masters" left capable of carrying out the surgery, according to Shanghai Evening Post.

For Dong, the surgery is not difficult, performed in less than 60 seconds with a small knife, a stand, a spoon and bamboo sticks.

He picked one up, fixed the rooster on the stand, plucked several feathers off its abdomen, and swiftly cut on a specific position where he took out its testicles with the spoon.

Dong said young roosters are more susceptible to catching diseases and dying after they are castrated, and chicken farmers have to raise them for at least seven to eight months before they are ready for slaughter. The high cost and risks have forced many farmers to quit the business, he said.

Castrated 50 roosters in one hour

Dong recalled that back in the "golden age," in 1968, he had to castrate over 50 roosters in one hour due to high market demand. He counted that he had castrated over 20,000 roosters in two months.

Now he castrates about 8,000 in two months, from which he earns about 10,000 yuan, Dong said. That's about 1.25 yuan per surgery for work that can be demanding and dirty.

He tried to pass his skills to the next generation, taking on four students, but three quit in the middle of the lessons.

But the decline in the delicacy may yet be reversed. Chen Yinquan, vice director of Shanghai Poultry Trade Association, told Xinmin Evening News yesterday that plans call for training more professionals to preserve traditional skills so that more residents can experience the tasty dish.


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