There’s a famous passage in the Bible where Jesus of Nazareth declares that in heaven he will divide the sheep from the goats, with the sheep destined for the pearly gates and the goats destined from the eternal flames. In the Hebrew Pentateuch, on the day of Atonement, the nation of Israel is to cast their sins upon a goat then let the goat out into the wild, forming the etymology of the word, “scapegoat.” While there are some rather unsavory descriptions and fates for the humble goat in the Bible, the animal’s current culinary status has been redeemed by clever cooks and cuisines around the world.
I remember my first significant memory of goat, an animal that is not often consumed in the U.S. I have to go back to when I was 12. I’d taken an early missionary trip to Cuba (then and still now illegal), where the town where we were staying celebrated our arrival with a feast. The main course? Well, I saw it hanging on a sapling, tied by its hind legs, its throat slit with a quick cut of the knife. While blood and eventually entrails were let out, I saw for the first time the gruesome act which must be considered with every slaughter.
The moral question of eating animals has not always been a quandary. For millennia and across cultures, eating animals has been a sign of prosperity, stability, and celebration. We’re probably less connected to the raising and slaughter of animals than ever in our industrial and technological society, but that act must still nevertheless be committed. It’s within the slaughter of our animals that we become interconnected with the value of life and the meaning of a certain sacrifice given by these creatures for our nourishment and fulfillment. To me, valuing this relationship gives worth to the animal, rather than the senseless consumption that so many Americans commit every day.
Despite the goat’s humble origins and existence as a scrappy hill-dweller, its gastronomic character is celebrated in endless cultures outside of our own (that is, America). It hasn’t been too long that I’ve been eating dishes with birria, the steamed, braised, or roasted goat that’s served as a typical Sunday brunch for Mexican families both here and south of the border.
The first version I had in LA comes from Birrieria Chalio, dusty little restaurant with bright green vinyl booths and a loud rainbow jukebox busting rambunctious tunes. The goat’s ribs are sauced in a vivid red sauce and stick out like vicious spikes from the stringy but tender meat. Squirt some of the dangerous habanero sauce, orange and mean, and wrap the meat in the thick, flapjack tortillas.
The best version I’ve had resides at Birrieria Flor Del Rio, on a comfy street corner nook on Fourth Avenue, just east of Downtown in Boyle Heights. The jukebox runs loud a jarring bass note while the gentle morning light creeps along the windows to illuminate a healthy portion of birria, slathered in its broth of cloves and tomatoes. The tortillas are thinner than Chalio’s, but still handmade, and a joy to eat when rolled up in your hand and eaten like an unfried taquito, or wrapped around the meat, where juicy-aromatic meat, crunchy onions, and fresh cilantro temper the dripping broth laced into it all. Where Flor Del Rio triumphs is the expert cooking of the meat, roasted to maintain a nice stringy texture with a hint of jerky-like bite, but still moist and redolent of cloves.
Also consider Birrieria Tepeque, a complete find of a birria joint, housed in a large white box-space, the walls lined with an expansive mural of goats on a verdant hillside. The meat here is perhaps even juicier than Flor Del Rio, and even better seasoned with a mélange of spices. The rib meat here excels, hunks of meat coming off with ease. Goaty essence runs firmly through eat bite. Be sure to ask for the chili oil salsa, essentially crushed dried chilis with oil that adds a musky, fiery kick.
I’ve also recently discovered the beauty of goat dishes in Bangladeshi cuisine, with goat priyani, vindaloo, and goat halim, a creamy curry with succulent chunks of tender goat meat. Goat dishes in Korean cuisine are prevalent, with a rich stew with spices and root vegetables masking the otherwise gamey flesh of old goat.
Javier Cabral (aka Teenage Glutster) shares his mother’s birria recipe. I hope to try this delicious (and relatively simple) creation some day in his home, but I think that if you can procure the ingredients at a local Latino market, you should be just fine. I’m not going to bet you that the measurements are perfect, which Javier claims was like pulling teeth from a goat from his first-generation, Mexican-born mother.
Mrs. Cabral’s “Rustic” Goat Birria
3 Cups of Water
3 lbs Fresh Goat meat, preferably legs and shank
6 Nuevo Mexico chiles, de-veined and de-seeded (look for them on the chile section in a local or ethnic market)
2 whole cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon of cumin, freshly ground if possible
3 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon of vinegar (white or apple, or anything strong)
1 tablespoon of salt, plus more to taste
¼ tablespoon of fresh ground pepper, plus more to taste
1. Toast the chiles directly over a dry griddle, non-stick griddle or directly over the fire for a brief period, with tongs
2. Soak chiles in the water to let the flavor come out, then blend for 3 minutes until smooth
3. To the blender, add garlic, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, vinegar, salt and pepper and blend until smooth.
4. Place goat meat into a large stockpot or Dutch oven, then pour the blended liquid into the pot. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Once a rolling boil is reached, put heat to low, braising slowly until each piece is cooked through, anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. It depends on the age of the goat, as younger meat takes less time than a piece from an older “haggard.” Take off a chunk and taste to test. Continue to cook through if not tender enough.
5. Take out meat and chop into large dice to ration out. Serve with a small bowl of the braising liquid, or pour braising liquid on top of meat. Serve with warmed tortillas, chopped white onions, chopped cilantro, and fresh-cut lime or lemon wedges.