Whose goat is it anyway?

Given that the cuisine of the sub-continent has developed around the meat of this animal, why are our chefs and restaurant managers so embarrassed to admit this?

brunch Updated: Feb 11, 2012 19:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
sub-continent,seekh kebab,London

Given that the cuisine of the sub-continent has developed around the meat of this animal, why are our chefs and restaurant managers so embarrassed to admit this?

Just as every MP begins his or her career with a lie – by saying that total electoral expenditure was under the limit – so every chef and restaurant manager who writes a menu usually starts out with a lie of his or her own.

The lie consists of a description of the red meat that is used in the kitchen. Often, the menu will simply say ‘mutton’. This is a term widely used in the culinary world to describe meat from a sheep. The term ‘lamb’ is restricted to young sheep. If the meat comes from an older animal then ‘mutton’ is used. It is the sort of distinction embodied by the phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, commonly employed to describe older women who try and dress young.

The problem, of course, is that the kitchen does not use mutton, no matter what it says on the menu. The chances are that the chef is using goat, a meat for which the term mutton is never used outside of India.

Some chefs and menu writers go further with their evasions. In the descriptive line below such menu staples as seekh kebab and raan, they will use lamb instead of goat. So, a seekh kebab will be described as ‘minced lamb cooked on a skewer in the tandoor’ and a raan as ‘leg of lamb’.

A pound of goat meat has two-third the calories of a pound of beef and half the saturated fat of chicken

Even as the menu is being written, the chefs and managers will know that they are telling big fat lies. But they will rationalise it, arguing, just as our MPs do when they file their election expenses, that everyone does it so it is perfectly acceptable to engage in such evasions or misstatements.

The one time Indian chefs don’t lie about the true nature of the meat they are using is at restaurants abroad. Indian restaurants in London will usually substitute lamb with goat so when they say that their seekh kebabs are made with minced lamb, they are not lying. But the consequence is that their meat dishes hardly ever taste exactly the same as the original dishes do in India – how could they, given that they are using a completely different animal?

Two mysteries remain. One: why do chefs in India use goat rather than lamb? The answer is simple enough. The dishes were invented for goat meat, not for lamb. Besides, many Indians much prefer the taste of goat to that of lamb. Indian chefs sometimes complain that lamb can be too fatty and customers occasionally protest that dishes made with lamb smell all wrong.

The second mystery is the more profound one. Given that the cuisine of the sub-continent has developed around the meat of the goat, then why are our chefs and managers so embarrassed to admit this? Why do they feel obliged to lie?

One answer, usually offered by chefs, is that the term ‘mutton’ means goat meat in India. Well, yes, it does now after decades of misuse but you can’t arbitrarily rename an animal or a bird or its meat. You can’t say that it is perfectly legitimate to refer to a ‘duck’ as ‘chicken’ in India because that is how we use the term. So it is with mutton and goats.

The second answer – and I would argue that this one makes more sense – is that chefs treat this as a harmless evasion. Most Indians know that the meat they get served at restaurants (or the meat at home) is goat regardless of how it is described on the menu. So, when we order a seekh kebab at a restaurant, we expect to get goat meat even if the menu promises lamb.

Foreigners are not so understanding. There is no real tradition of eating goat in much of the Western world. You find goat in Jamaican, Mexican and African food and some Greek dishes require goat meat. But in most of Europe and America, the idea of eating goat is as repugnant as the idea of eating horse or fox would be to you and me. (Though the French and the Italians are quite happy to eat fox or horse, or even donkey, so why they should object to goat is strange.)

I sometimes wonder if our chefs are being too careful about offending foreigners. Goat meat is actually gaining in popularity in the West. It is still hard to find, but shops that do sell it often charge more for goat than they do for lamb, treating it as an exotic and hard-to-find meat.

What’s interesting though is that nobody in the West regards it as a simple substitute for lamb. Most Western chefs and food writers argue that the meat is very different. I was reading about the rising popularity of goat in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, and it intrigued me that the writer was struggling to describe the flavour of goat to American readers. As the Journal said, “Goat is the ultimate mystery meat for American home cooks... it’s just not part of our food culture.”

GoatA cook-book writer is quoted by the Journal as saying that goat tastes like a cross between dark meat turkey and pork. Other descriptions suggest that it is a cross between veal and lamb.

American chefs also treat goat as a meat that is difficult to cook. Many suggestions are offered for softening the meat and taming what is described as its strong, gamey flavour.

Indian chefs have long recognised that goat requires special attention: that is one reason why marination is such an important part of the Indian culinary tradition. The process involved in making a raan, for instance, is so long and complicated that many Western chefs, used to simply roasting a leg of lamb, would faint at the prospect of turning a leg of goat into a melt-in-the-mouth dish.

But what’s interesting – and I didn’t realise this till I read the Journal story – is that goat is being promoted as the healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to beef, lamb and pork.

Bill Niman (the founder of Niman Ranch, whose meat products are famous the world over) recommends goat because it is a sustainable meat from animals that thrive on pasture. The health argument is also compelling. A pound of goat meat has two-third the calories of a pound of beef. And this is the astonishing bit: goat has half the saturated fat of chicken. So, all those Indian doctors who read American textbooks that tell people to give up red meat and switch to chicken for the sake of their hearts may be making a mistake. The American textbooks use red meat as a synonym for beef. But the red meat we eat, goat, is actually better for your heart than chicken.

As goat becomes the trendy meat, Western chefs are creating a caste system for goats similar to the one that is already employed for pork, chicken and beef. Most people in the food business know that black-leg chickens or those from the French town of Bresse are the best. There is a classification of pork as well. Near the top of the heap is Berkshire pork. (Berkshire pigs, bred in Japan, produce korobuta pork, which is also highly regarded.) When it comes to beef, such breeds as Angus are highly prized and beef from the Japanese town of Kobe can be among the world’s most expensive meats.

The same sort of thing seems set to happen to goat meat. Chefs look for goats from the Spanish, Kiko or Boer breeds. Goats from lesser breeds command a lower price. They insist that a goat should not weigh more than 60 pounds. If it is older than nine months, then its meat falls in value. Female goats are preferred to male goats because their meat is more tender.

Much of this will not surprise India’s Quereshi chefs who come from a long tradition of butchers and understand the goat best. The Quereshis even understand goat fat, choosing the fat from particular parts of the animal for each dish. (For instance, while the meat for a kakori can come from different parts of the goat, the fat must come from the kidney area.)

But Indian restaurants and hotels are reluctant to even admit that they serve goat, let alone brag about the expertise of the chef in choosing the right part of a goat from the best breed of a certain age and under a certain weight. So while American and European chefs celebrate the goat and turn it into a trendy gourmet delicacy, our contribution to goat-eating is to call the animal ‘lamb’ even though we know we are lying.

But as the goat craze catches on, perhaps Indian restaurants will finally overturn the lies and evasions of so many decades.

From HT Brunch, February 12

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

First Published: Feb 10, 2012 18:52 IST