Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mutton, Mutton Everywhere

Before coming to Kyrgyzstan, I thought of mutton as a sort of post-war British fare, to be accompanied by boiled cabbage and carrots. I'm quite sure my grandparents ate it. (I know for a fact that my grandmother happily consumed delicacies like brains and tongue, too; I can forgive the latter because The Famous Five were forever eating tinned tongue on their sandwiches - the brains not so much.) However, up until the last few months I hadn't given proper consideration to the reality of mutton. The very name is unappetising - sort of reminiscent of nineteenth century sideburns - and so is the fact that you distinguish it from lamb by saying it's the meat of an old sheep.

Anyway, mutton is the meat of choice round these parts. The shashliks on street corners are made of it; the samsi are filled with the fatty remnants of it; and every local restaurant will have a chicken option and a meat option, which will be a sort of indistinguishable beef or mutton, but generally the latter. That's it as far as meat goes. Hence, as a dyed-in-the-wool omnivore, I find myself thinking longingly about lamb chops and pork roasts and kangaroo steaks and barbequed swordfish and prosciutto, and also about the idea of not eating rice and potatoes and doughs with every meal. It's heavy stuff. Salt and pepper and chilli and dill are the flavours of choice - how I'd love some fresh coriander, some basil, some continental parsley! (Such is the privilege of having lived an inner-city Melbourne life - the food is impossibly good, varied, fresh. And don't even get me started on the coffee - that's a whole other blog post.)

Interestingly, I find that my attitude to food hygiene is also changing; in Australia, we can be certain (or close to it) that our food has been prepared to rigid cleanliness standards. We expect, and even assume as our right, that the meal we order has been carefully prepared by clean hands and its components have been appropriately refrigerated. Well, the Kyrgyz think differently about all this. The chicken you buy - it might have been frozen and refrozen a couple of times. That's perfectly acceptable. The beef could have been sitting at room temperature all day - and so what? I find I'm becoming increasingly inured to the hygiene standards, or lack of them. The alternative is becoming extremely fussy and perhaps even cutting out meat altogether, which would make you a sort of social pariah in this country.

Having said that, I would not willingly eat horse again, no matter how painstakingly it had been prepared. The first time was a mistake, and I ate it so as not to offend, and also so that I could say that I had eaten horse (perhaps thereby demonstrating an unfortunate tendency to pride). But everybody has their level, as Mr Elton said to Emma, and I am tolerably sure that I have found mine; it resides somewhere between mutton and horsemeat.


  1. They loved mutton in Malaysia too. At first I wondered why there was no word for "lamb" itself, then realised it's because they almost never eat it. They just used the same word that they had for "mutton". So it was impossible to know if you were getting lamb, or mutton dressed up as it. I feel there's a proverb somewhere in that scenario...

  2. I feel that meat-eating generally lends itself to proverbs...better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox stands in such stark contrast to ascetic spirituality! But then JC himself ate meat and was of an earthy persuasion, so I don't know why we should aim for anything more esoteric than mutton in our dining habits.