Why Curry Goat is the GOAT
As the millions of Notting Hill carnival revellers get into full groove and dance the day away in the heart of West London as energy begins to draw down the hunger monster starts calling. At the scores and scores of stalls selling predominantly Caribbean inspired food there always seems to be two meals leading the way: jerk chicken and curry goat - a classic dish of goat meat, seasoned with curry powder and cooked down in a gravy.
This dish of rich red meat swimming in spicy sauce has played a big role in my life. However, growing up I soon found that very much wasn't the case for many others. In primary school as a child, a classmate yelled “You eat GOATS!” as I recounted the joy of a recent curry goat meal. Something about the way she added the ‘s’ at the end made it sound insidious like we were cave dwelling beasts only rearing our heads once every blue moon to slay a flock castaway or check up on our traps.
In the absurdly titled THEY EAT THAT? A cultural encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World book the sentiment is echoed when the authors tells, seemingly with a literary nudge nudge wink wink that “Curry goat is actually one of the national dishes of Jamaica” likely to the shock and dismay of its readership.
In retrospect, both point to the same Western reverence and sanctity toward eating certain creatures and the abhorrence of others. While goat is widely available at many butchers’ across the British mainland (and across Europe) particularly in areas with high ethnic population, it has never fully entered the British palette and likely the aforementioned prejudice is the reason. Though goat (or mutton) appears to be in favour during the Tudor period of Britain especially featuring in pies it doesn't seem to have caught the wider imagination of the west. Other animals such as deer, rabbit, venison and even pigeon commonly find their way into the middle and upper echelons of dining but for some reason goat is seldom featured.
Way back, things were different in Jamaica, where options for meat were markedly limited. Curried forms of Goat have been so popular for nearly a century that the dish was once in contention for the honour of national dish. Writers from as far back as the 1600s illustrate that goat was preferred to sheep by people of West African descent and the remnants of this today are overwhelmingly clear. As popular as curry goat is in the Caribbean, goat laden Peppe’ soup is equally adorned from Sierra Leone to Nigeria and hence our shared nonchalance at the thought of eating goat. Likewise, those of Indian descent who arrived in Jamaica must’ve then revelled at the reception to their native cooked down goat curries that were often created from rationed mutton on the weekends so it was like a special event.
The majority of Indians who came to the Caribbean through the British indentured labourship were from the Northern region where Goat Kalia a form of curry goat was already popular. This here seems like the genesis of Caribbean curry goat and why it is loved by people from such diverse backgrounds.
As the likes of Tikka Masala and Green Thai curries have reached mass awareness in Britain, curry goat still does seem to lag behind. The reason? Perhaps the affinity to bones. Popularised high street Caribbean chains attempt a substitution with bone-free lamb versions and for the curry traditionalists many of those of Caribbean heritage stay steadfast in their support of the presence of goat bones. While other ethnic cuisines have diverged from their cultural origins to crossover, simply put the Caribbeans aren't having it! While the recipe add-ons can change from island to island with things like potatoes, carrots, coconut milk and so on the key ingredients seldom change.
Yvonne Maxwell, writer of the popular blog Pass the Dutchpot of dual Caribbean-West African heritage tells me. “The first time I tasted goat meat was as a toddler in Nigeria, when my mum would give me the stewed down meat to chew on whilst teething - still on the bone and cartilage intact.” Then explaining in terms of accessibility,
“ Goat meat always featured heavily in my diet while growing up (perhaps, because it was a lot more affordable back then) - whether coated in turmeric and other spices for curry goat, slipping through my hands as I slurped ogbono soup, or drenched in a brown and red speckled pepper soup broth.”
Likewise, Charm Bonaparte of popular Mama Gee’s Caribbean food pop-up and catering has been cooking curry for longer than I have been alive and defaults to always cooking curry goat with bones. If a client asks for boneless meat she tells me, “I buy the shoulder and ask the butcher to remove the fat and bone.” But the default is always goat on the bone. Many opt to use lamb as a substitute but to the connoisseurs the difference is immediately noticeable.
Given the deep history of curry goat in the Caribbean community and those that add to its vivid heritage it seems clear how and why curry goat is so popular. Only a few dishes like Fried chicken have such global roots and for those that know about curry goat I’m sure they’d rank it just as high. The meal seems so sacred to many that people refuse to alter it for new taste buds which is for the best and why curry goat is the goat.