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Is Rotisserie Chicken the Perfect Food?
Every country we've lived in makes and loves fantastic rotisserie chickens — with one glaring exception.
Here are a couple of food-related observations I have after five years of traveling as a digital nomad:
Every country has at least one or two national dishes they do spectacularly well: e.g. goulash in Hungary, fondue in Switzerland, ćevapi in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In most countries, it’s often hard to find other country’s cuisines done well. Tacos in Thailand is not a great idea. And hamburgers outside of America are almost always subpar.
There are always exceptions, of course. Brent and I had amazing Indian food in Vietnam. One of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten was in Italy. And thanks to America’s immigrant culture, you can get fantastic international cuisine throughout the United States.
There is, however, one dish we’ve eaten in almost every country that has been good everywhere.
Rotisserie-style roasted chicken.
From rural Bulgaria (where it’s called pecheno pile), to Mexico City (pollo rostizado), to the shores of Lake Como (pollo arrosto), rotisserie-roasted chicken rarely disappoints.
Different countries may give this chicken a slightly different spin — pun intended — but it’s almost always delicious.
Why is it so often so good?
For starters, it’s pretty simple to prepare, especially when compared to that other poultry staple, turkey.
There’s a reason dried-out turkey is so often the Destroyer of American Thanksgivings: turkey has a higher ratio of meat to bone, which makes it harder to cook evenly. This lessens the juices released during cooking and, when done poorly, results in less succulent, less flavorful dried-out meat.
Chicken also possesses a mild flavor that absorbs seasonings exceptionally well. Even just a bit of salt and pepper — plus a little butter or olive oil rubbed on the skin — can almost guarantee a tasty bird.
As for the rotisserie method, this is perfectly suited to producing delicious chickens. A convection oven circulates hot air, but the meat doesn’t move, which means it can end up dry and unevenly cooked. But in a rotisserie oven, chickens are placed on spits or skewers, and are constantly rotated against an open heat source, so everything is cooked intensely but evenly. Fats melt and collagens break down everywhere, keeping meat tender and juicy.
Meanwhile, having rows of chickens stacked on top of each other as they slowly rotate spreads the juices over the entire surface of the chickens, continuously coating the skin in flavorful fats. Basically, your chicken is always being basted. That steady application of heat also means the skin is guaranteed to be crispy, often to the point of caramelization.
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And even with all that fat, roasted chicken still has considerably less fat and calories than fried or deep-fried chicken. (In fairness to turkey, it’s even healthier than rotisserie chicken.)
As we travel, Brent and I generally buy our roast chickens from small, local vendors rather than grocery stores. Why? Well, we do try to support local businesses.
But also because the flavor is much better.
Why wouldn’t it be? In most of the places we patronize, roast chicken is often the only thing they produce.
In Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, we got our chicken at a place called Chicken and Rice.
Which is all they sold: whole or half roasted chickens taken right off the rotisserie, served with a massive side of rice cooked with tomatoes and vegetables in some of the chicken drippings.
And now I need to stop writing for a minute to wipe the drool from my mouth.
Chicken and Rice, like every small chicken place we patronize, has no concept of a “heat-lamp.” And that means sometimes you have to wait a bit. Or that they might run out of chickens if you get there too late in the day.
Which isn’t to say certain local chains can’t also do good rotisserie chicken.
In Mexico, we loved the Mexican chain El Pechugon. As you can see in the video, the fat from the chickens also cooks the roasted potatoes nestled under the birds.
And now I’m drooling on my computer again.
Alas, there is one country on this planet that does not do rotisserie chicken particularly well, in my opinion.
Yes, it’s America.
Which is ironic because rotisserie roasted chickens are hugely popular in the U.S., in large part because of chain grocery stores.
Perhaps the most famous rotisserie chickens in America are the ones sold at Costco, which cost a mere $4.99 — a price that hasn’t changed since 2009.
But what you save in money, you’re sacrificing in both flavor and healthfulness — and also maybe a little piece of your soul.
Here’s why they don’t taste as good as they do in other countries.
Before cooking, they’re injected with a number of chemicals, including very high levels of sodium phosphates, which have been linked to kidney problems; carrageenan (a preservative); potato dextrin, which is a thickener and sweetener; and dextrose, which is just sugar.
They’re also often pumped full of very harmful levels of sodium — salt.
And in the last stage of the harvesting process, they’re washed with chlorine. This is banned in the EU, not because it’s necessarily unhealthy for consumers, but because they think it will encourage bad hygiene earlier in the process.
And here’s why those chickens are also bad for your soul:
They’re factory-farmed. Costco sold over one hundred million roast chickens in 2021 — and 40% of them came from a single complex in Fremont, Nebraska. Basically, the chickens are heartlessly abused physically.
They’re also “genetically” abused. Back in 1922, it took the average chicken about four months to reach three pounds. Today’s “broilers,” which are chickens raised specifically in factory farms to be roasted, reach six pounds in two months. These aren’t chickens, they’re Frankenstein’s monster — and this is terrible for the chicken.
As I write this, a new strain of bird flu is sweeping through American factory farms, killing millions of chickens and turkeys, and alarming government officials over how far it will spread. With local farms, these diseases can be arrested much faster.
And suddenly, I’m not drooling anymore.
Compare this to the way chickens are cooked and raised in places outside of the United States.
In Novi Sad, Serbia, for example, I did much of our grocery shopping at Riblja Pijaca — a large outdoor market — where a half dozen vendors sold locally raised chickens.
How do I know when chickens are locally raised?
I asked. Yelena, who operated one of those stands, proudly told me all her chickens came from her own family’s farm, which is just outside of Novi Sad.
But we’ve also seen these local chicken farms almost everywhere we go. In Sarajevo, we watched men butchering and draining the blood from chickens in a big yard right near our apartment.
It’s a bit intense being confronted with just how fresh these local chickens are, but it’s also a nice reminder that we’re eating actual animals — not merely a “product.”
But back to the glory of rotisserie-style chicken. I remember when my love affair with this food truly began.
It was in the Bulgarian mountain town of Bansko, in 2018, our first year of nomading. I was walking back to our apartment when my nose suddenly twitched at the aroma of roasting chicken.
I traced the smell to Rekata Fast Food, a small restaurant next to the Glazne River.
Alongside the building, I found a silver rotisserie oven. Inside the oven, I saw a dozen perfectly-roasted, slowly-spinning chickens — though the big glass doors didn’t look like they’d been washed in quite some time.
Inside my mind, the smell of those chickens did battle with the sight of that dirty oven. America may have factory farms, but they also have much stronger sanitation standards.
Despite my wariness, I bought a chicken. The price was about $4 USD — even less than a Costco chicken.
(Then again, the cost of living in Bulgaria is about one-fifth that of America, so the “real” local cost of that chicken was somewhat higher. Incidentally, even Costco factory farms can’t produce a profitable chicken at $4.99 — it’s a “loss-leader,” designed to draw customers into the store so they’ll buy other stuff. That’s why the chickens are always positioned in the back of the store.)
Anyway, I took that Bulgarian chicken home, and Brent and I devoured it. It was fantastic.
We went back to that stand again and again. Once we went only to find they were out of chickens, and the owner of the restaurant said, “We can go butcher some more, if you want to come back later this afternoon,” and I think he meant he literally kept live chickens somewhere behind the restaurant.
In the years since, my love for rotisserie chickens has only grown.
In our favorite rotisserie place in Mexico City, the chickens were marinated in lime juice and packed with spices like coriander and cumin — and served with roasted whole onions and tortillas.
In Hungary, the birds had a smokier, BBQ-tinged flavor with skin that had been blasted with garlic and paprika.
In Italy, they were, of course, cooked with olive oil and Italian spices like oregano, basil, and rosemary.
And here in North Macedonia, where we’re living now, a surprising number of restaurants have small rotisserie ovens cooking chickens just outside their doors.
It’s no joke to say that, whenever Brent and I arrive in a new country, one of the very first things I do is track down the place that sells rotisserie roasted chickens.
Because in my humble opinion, it truly is the perfect food.