Goat is one of the healthiest meats in the world. Photo by Peter Holslin.
In City Heights recently, Rahmo Abdi served her family and me a favorite dish from her home country of Somalia: goat meat and rice. It's more complicated than it sounds. Boiled and then fried to crispy gold, the chunks of meat were seasoned with yellow curry, cardamom, cumin, cilantro and garlic, among other spices, and topped with sautéed onions and bell peppers. Served on a giant platter beside a huge bowl of aromatically spiced rice and bananas (no Somali meal is complete without a banana), the colorful meal brought to mind a fireworks display.
Goat, a major source of livelihood across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, is the most widely eaten meat in the world. It's also one of the healthiest: It has less fat than skinless chicken, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But when you sink your teeth into it, a gamey goat is more challenging than the average cow.
At Abdi's house, though, I was feeling gamey. She didn't bother to offer a fork and knife—and I didn't bother to ask. I pulled the chunks of fibrous meat from the bone, and I licked my fingertips after savoring its distinctly musty flavor. I dipped it in a slow-burning hot sauce made from Serrano chilies, tomatillo and mayo. When I had my fill, I used a toothpick to free bits lodged in my teeth.
Ethnic markets like Minnehaha (4990 University Ave., owned by Abdi's brother) and Mideast Market (4593 El Cajon Blvd.) have long plied a healthy trade in goat meat, but it goes without saying that most Americans prefer beef and poultry. In recent years, though, the cloven-hoofed critters have gradually clopped into American butchers' meat freezers. Curious foodies can now find a variety of goat cuts at Whole Foods or even special order it from Albertsons.
People have herded, traded, milked and eaten goats for thousands of years, but Americans weren't keen on goat meat until the early '90s, when the first Boer goats (muscular animals from South Africa bred for their meat) arrived in the United States. In the years since, ranchers and restaurateurs across the country have not only been enamored with the goat's taste, but also intrigued by its wonderful properties.
“Any animal can be raised badly in a food lot, so not all goat is good,” says Jay Porter, owner of The Linkery (3794 30th St. in North Park), which has served everything from goat-and-pork bratwurst to goat-brain fritters. “If it's raised in the industrial food system, it's gonna be bad. But when you talk about pastured-animal farmers, who are raising animals the right way, goat has some really neat things to it.”
Goats make for effective cultivation systems, since they eat the broad-leafed plants, thistles and shrubs that cows mostly ignore, and their pellet-shaped manure is perfect for fertilizer. Bill Niman, a rancher in Bolinas, Calif., well-known for his natural ranching style, says he uses goats instead of pesticides and herbicides.
But goats are also popular for their impish qualities. “Compared to the sheep, they're a little more intelligent,” says Janet Tulloch of Tulloch Farm (28383 Hwy. 78 near Ramona), who raises a few dozen goats along with sheep. “They're a little friendlier, because they are more intelligent. And because they are more intelligent, they're more apt to get into trouble.”
Case in point: In a large pen one recent Saturday, a plump mother craned her neck through a gate to get at some alfalfa and grain crumbs that Tulloch dropped while loading the feeder. Meanwhile, a flexible 3-month-old contorted herself to sneak through a narrow opening in the bottom of the fence. “Don't worry,” Tulloch says. “She does that all the time.”
As a snowy-white babe nibbled curiously on my pant leg, I thought how delightful it would be to adopt a floppy-eared Boer baby—specifically, the one that Tulloch said would grow into the ideal “meat goat”—as a pet. But I've found it easy to reconcile my love of goats with my love of goat meat. As Bill Niman says, whether it's a milder-tasting kid or a more flavorful adult, goat tastes “uniformly wonderful.”
Goat hasn't been on the menu at The Linkery in a while, so bide your time nearby at El Comal (3946 Illinois St.), which serves a plate of deliciously moist barbecued goat in a ruddy marinade that's simultaneously light and rich. Or go for the goat tacos. Just watch out for the occasional bone shard.
But if you prefer your goat Somali-style, head to Safari Grill (4990 University Ave. in City Heights, next door to Minnehaha), where juicy chunks of meat on the bone are spiced with curry and served with a choice of seasoned rice or spaghetti, a holdover from the days of Italian colonialism.
If you're feeling extra gamey, you can always buy a goat directly from Tulloch Farm or RC Livestock (40288 De Luz Murrieta Road in Fallbrook) and slaughter it yourself.
Or make it your pet.