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Indonesia's Jet-Black Chickens Are the Dark Side of Poultry

The ayam cemani, a prized breed of Indonesian chicken, is the result of a genetic mutation that produces a completely black bird, from beak to bone. Because of their color and supposed magical properties, they can fetch up to $4,000 each.

In 1999, Wira Kusumah, a farmer from West Java, Indonesia, made a deal for a chicken that sounds more like an expert con than a legitimate business transaction.

"I sold a rooster for $4,000 in the past," he proudly tells me.

This is a country where fowl can be found nearly everywhere, either pecking away on street corners or being fried up for plates of street food. For perspective, the price of Wira's rooster represents nearly twice the GDP per capita of the average Indonesian.

But this wasn't any ordinary chicken. Wira fetched his fortune for a prized ayam cemani, a jet-black beauty whose status in Java and abroad borders on the mystical.

Renowned for their rarity and defined by a genetic mutation that makes them completely black from feather to bone, the ayam cemani holds a special place in Javanese culture. Originating from Central Java, they are considered status symbols, good luck charms and are used in traditional medicine preparations to cure a variety of ailments across the island. They are even believed to have magical powers.

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"Javanese people are very close with chickens," Wira, who owns Cemani Farms, explains. "And they give special treatment to breeds such as… the ayam cemani."

Wira has been raising ayam cemanis since 1990. Currently, he sells anywhere from ten to 20 adult birds and about 250 chicks per year, and his prices are in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. While he said he deals chickens to researchers and collectors alike, he explained that most of his customers desire ayam cemanis strictly for their spiritual properties.

"Ninety percent of buyers want ayam cemanis for their black blood," he said. "The black blood is used in ceremonies."

Although it is not technically black—it's a very, very dark red—the sacred blood of the birds is often spilled in sacrificial rituals. For instance, when someone breaks ground on a major construction project in Indonesia, he or she may offer an ayam cemani for good fortune. The darker the blood, the better.

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Wira added that many would-be buyers might balk at a potential purchase if a specimen does not exhibit the desired blood color.

"A lot of people say that they've seen ayam cemanis with black blood, but I have never found it," he said. "Ayam cemanis with dark red blood are acceptable, but the price will be lower."

So what about the other 10 percent of customers? Despite their many uses, Wira said that ayam cemanis are not raised for food in Indonesia, and any consumption is reserved for medicinal purposes.

"We do not eat them for dinner or breakfast," he said.

But chicken is chicken after all, and at least one farm outside of Indonesia believes all-black poultry could possibly entice some deep-pocketed gourmets to one day indulge in ebony avian.

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Greenfire Farms, a family-run operation in North Florida that deals in ayam cemani, invites its customers on its website to come over to the "dark side." The farm makes note of the chicken's exotic roots, its cultural significance, and its beauty, but it notably declares the bird "the Lamborghini of poultry."

"We first saw them from a German breeder," Jenny Taylor, the farm manager at Greenfire, tells me. "Once we saw them, we thought they'd be very popular in the United States… also, they look cool as shit."

Since Greenfire introduced the birds to its farm 18 months ago, it has sold a total of 30 roosters and 40 hens. Each breeding pair goes for $2,000—a price comparable to some members of Wira's flock.

Even though Taylor said her farm has sold ayam cemanis primarily to personal breeders and practitioners of traditional medicine, she adds that a handful of chefs have reached out and expressed interest in the breed's culinary capacities.

"We have talked to a few chefs about [the chicken's] potential," she said.

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But that potential is hard to gauge with such a pricey piece of poultry. Wira and Taylor, despite working intimately with the birds, both admitted that neither of them has actually tasted ayam cemani meat.

Both claimed they knew people who have indulged. One of Wira's family members maintained the meat was tastier than regular chicken, while Taylor said that she heard ayam cemanis were much gamier due to their narrower carcass.

Given their price and their reproduction habits—ayam cemanis only typically lay 60 to 80 eggs per year, whereas other breeds will pop out nearly 230—farm-to-table ayam cemani meat appears to be a thing of the future.

As of now, Greenfire has a waiting list for the birds extending to next spring, since demand has so far been much greater than supply. Add to that the fact that some specimens are born not completely black and are therefore undesired.

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But Taylor is confident that the possibilities for consuming ayam cemani meat will be greater once other people's flocks become more established.

She compared the case of the ayam cemani to that of the American bresse, which Greenfire's website claims are considered the tastiest chickens on earth. Breeding bresses also happens to be extremely demanding work that requires painstaking techniques to produce desired results.

"When we first imported the bresse, people started their foundation flocks," she said. "Partnerships with chefs were made, and more accessible price points were reached. I can easily see that happening with the ayam cemani."