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It’s time to stop lying that the goat on the menu is actually lamb

My wife does not like chicken. Take her to a kabab restaurant and she will refuse to eat the chicken tikka.

A barrah kabab or a raan will always be preferred. As for biryani, it must always be made with mutton. There is, according to her, no such thing as a good chicken biryani. A chicken burger is a joke, she says; a waste of good bread.


Ok, fair enough. I am not a chicken fan either. And the horrible, industrial, mass-produced chickens that most Indian restaurants use are so bland and rubbery that I can understand why she refuses to eat them.


   But then, it gets more complicated. Chefs who are aware of her preference for red meat offer her lamb cutlets, cooked the English way. Or may be a lamb stew or a navarin cooked the French way.


   “I am sorry”, she will say. “I don’t like lamb.”


   “But, ma’am,” they will protest. “You liked the kababs yesterday! You were saying that you will only eat mutton biryani…”


   I can understand why the chefs are so confused. But frankly, it is their own fault; the fault of the entire restaurant industry, in fact.


   By now, you must know that most Indians eat goat. The ‘meat’ your butcher or ‘meat-wallah’ sells is nearly always goat. All the great meat dishes of Indian cuisine use goat.


   The widespread use of goat as the favoured red meat is a peculiarly South Asian phenomenon. In most of the world they use lamb. And when foreigners hear that the kababs they have enjoyed while travelling through India are made from goat, they tend to freak out a little.


   It is the same in the Caribbean, the one other place where goat meat is popular. In 1972/73, when the Rolling Stones were recording an album in Jamaica, they subsisted on a diet of meat patties in the studio. (When they were not indulging in more exotic substances, I imagine.) At some stage they discovered that the patties were not made from beef or lamb as they had assumed. They were made from goat meat. The Stones were shocked. Goat? They wondered: who the hell eats goats?


   Mick Jagger says he did a little digging and discovered that goat was the meat of choice in Jamaica and that one of the island’s specialties was a soup made from a goat's head. (It’s called Mannish Water, which is such a great name that it could also be the name of a blues song.) They were so fascinated by the novelty of eating goat meat that they called the album Goat’s Head Soup and commissioned cover artwork with a goat’s head in a pot. Their record company thought this was gross, refused to allow the picture to be reproduced on the record jacket and eventually the album went out with a picture of Jagger and the other Stones on the cover.


  "The irony is that goat is nearly always the healthier meat. Most goats in India are free range, roam the fields and eat grass.  There is no tradition of industrial goat pens."

   That was in 1973, and even today most people in the West still regard the idea of cooking goat as either odd or even revolting.


   There are exceptions of course. In some European countries it is not unusual to eat horse, donkey or fox so goat is not such a big deal. But in the English-speaking world, even horse, donkey etc., are regarded as unsuitable for human consumption.


   Indian chefs and restaurateurs who were aware of the prejudice against goat took to lying about the provenance of the meat they put into their dishes. They first began calling it mutton, stealing the term used for the meat of an older sheep and applying it to goat meat. Then they just resorted to straight forward lies, using the term ‘lamb’ on menus even when the dish was made with goat.


   Hence the confusion that accompanies my wife’s gastronomic preferences. She likes goat. She does not like lamb. And chefs who have spent a lifetime trying to fudge the difference between the two animals just don’t get it.


   Lamb is actually a very different kind of meat from goat. For one, it is much fattier. For another it smells very different. If you know your meat, then it is easy to tell the difference between a biryani made with lamb and one made with goat.


   There is not much good quality lamb in India (except for a few pockets, such as parts of Rajasthan) so nearly all the meat (‘mutton’) you will be served at restaurants will be goat. But at restaurants that serve European food, there will be real lamb, and it will usually be imported from Australia or New Zealand. It will cost five times as much as Indian goat but chefs will claim, with some justification, that the expense is worth it because you cannot really use goat in European recipes.


   My wife’s aversion to the smell of lamb is so acute that we don’t usually go to many Indian restaurants in say, the UK, because familiar dishes will be made with lamb rather than goat and she will say that they taste wrong or smell strange.


   Speaking for myself, I love good lamb but I take her point about how Indian food only really tastes right when you use goat.


   The irony is that goat is nearly always the healthier meat. Most goats in India are free range, roam the fields and eat grass.  There is no tradition of industrial goat pens. And goat is a leaner meat. It has much less saturated fat than pork, lamb, beef and—are you ready for this?—chicken!


   If your doctor has asked you to  cut down on red meat and to  stick to chicken, you might want to gently urge him to Google why  goat is much less fatty than the chicken we get in the Indian market. The chances are that he is quoting some American wisdom on the evils of red meat, not realising that when American health experts warn against red meat, they usually mean beef which is a very different kind of meat.


   As for our restaurateurs and chefs, I can understand why they are still so scared of saying that they are serving goat meat. (Not every Westerner is as excited by the idea of eating goat as the Rolling Stones were.) But it is time to stop lying and pretending that the goat on the menu is actually lamb.


   This is the right time to do it. Goat is now a trendy, sustainable lean meat and sales are going up in such countries as the US as a new generation abandons the prejudices of the past and embraces goat.


   Indians will not be shocked to learn that the mutton on the menu is goat. And as for foreigners, why should we lie about our most popular meat only to appease their delicate sensibilities?




  • Karthik 25 Dec 2021

    I agree with ur observation of deception in restaurants and tasteless chicken produced now a days. But the flavour and preferences are generalized to what I have seen. South Indians especially Tamilians, kannadigas and andhrites prefer sheep meat. Just in neighbouring Telangana Goat is preferred, so the consumption pattern changes a lot in our vast country. And flavour varies more with breed and diet. Sheep like Nellore and bannur have amazing taste, while NE goats (Bengal black) are worst meat

  • Karthik 25 Dec 2021

    Foodie, amateur cook and traveller

  • PC 06 Dec 2021

    Thanks for a great article and clarification. But if we go by the numbers and popularity, mutton should be the default for goat meat. The handful of westerners should change their menu instead of us who are in majority. Perhaps, everyone should state clearly on the menu (lamb, sheep or goat), instead of this ambiguity and creating confusion.

Posted On: 04 Dec 2021 01:30 PM
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