Young and Hungry

Have You Ever Wondered Why There’s So Much Lamb on Indian Menus?

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It'd be perfectly reasonable to assume that the preponderance of lamb has to do with the cow's sacred place among Hindus in India, an argument that stands up until you realize that most of the lamb production occurs in other countries.

Check out this quote from an FAO report about livestock production in Asia:

Mutton and lamb production failed to expand in most countries in the Asia-Pacific region. China had the highest average growth. Production in Australia and New Zealand, both significant suppliers of sheep meat to world markets, remained stable.

So how has a (mostly) imported meat become such a standard among Indians? In short: It hasn't. Lamb is an American substitute for the meat most often consumed by Indians back home: goat.

In her classic cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking (originally published in 1973), Madhur Jaffrey delves into Indians' love for goat and the switch to lamb on American soil:

When an Indian sits down to eat meat, it is nearly always goat meat. The English have translated the meat as mutton, but it is not to be confused with the aged sheep meat available in England, Australia, and New Zealand. Perhaps the English in India didn't know what else to call it — or perhaps they found a dish called "mutton chops" more palatable than if it was called plain old "goat chops." Who knows!

At any rate, "mutton" in India is not old sheep meat — far from it. It is usually very fresh goat meat and therefore not always very tender. Because of the lack of proper refrigeration facilities in India (most butchers cannot afford any) the animals are slaughtered daily and the meat is sold within 24 hours. In the richer homes it is then washed and refrigerated or frozen. But in the poorer homes it is cooked immediately. Since the meat is fairly tough, it is cooked slowly, over a longish period of time. For quicker fried and grilled dishes, the meat has to be tenderized first. The cheapest and most common tenderizer is crushed green papaya, but marinades of vinegar and yogurt are also used.

Not only is Indian goat meat a little on the tough side; it is also very lean. The result is that we use a great deal of cooking fat to brown our meats. We tend to like this "browned" look. When I buy lamb here in America (lamb is the best substitute for the Indian "mutton"), I first trim away all signs of fat. Then, to make it taste like the food I have in India, I cook it in lots of oil. This cooking fat can, of course, be removed later, once the dish is completely cooked, by spooning it off the top just before serving.

What's unspoken here, I think, is Americans' general distaste for chewy meats (very general given the difficulty of quantifying anything that this wacky country does). This distaste, more than anything, likely explains why goat has never become a staple on Indian menus in the United States. Back in India, it's another story.

Atul Bhola, owner of Masala Art (the subject of next week's Young & Hungry), agrees that goat is more common in his native India, but he adds one interesting note: Indians who have immigrated to the states don't tend to eat domestic lamb. It doesn't taste right to many of them, Bhola says.

If stateside Indians are going to eat lamb, he adds, they will stick with the New Zealand product, which doesn't have the off-putting flavors and smells of the domestic stuff. I ask Bhola if he ever served goat to his Indian guests, and he said no. He doesn't have a separate menu for Indians.

But he did say that Passage to India, Sudhir Seth's jewel of a place in Bethesda, serves a goat curry. Check it out, if you'd really like to eat like an Indian.

Photo by adactio via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License

  • Keith B

    As I recall the 1975 Joy of Cooking section on goat meat talked about how it was never popular in the US because it was considered "poor food", and advised you to go to an ethnic market to find the meat.

    That said, I don't think goat is that uncommon in Indian restaurants; maybe about 1/3 I've been to lately have it? I ate at a small, generic Indian spot up in Rockville last week; they had browned goat meat curry out at the buffet.

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