Why I’m Obsessed With Goat Curry
When I was growing up in Nepal in the 1990s, I couldn’t wait for Saturdays. What made them extraordinary wasn’t the fact that my father would make me go buy milk from the government dairy truck at dawn, or help him clean the garage and give the German shepherd a bath.
It was that Saturday was goat curry day.
We lived in Pokhara, a city known mostly for its lakes and views of some of the world’s highest mountains. And on most days, we ate vegetables — almost anything green cooked with potatoes in cumin and coriander paste. On occasional Fridays, my father would bring home fresh fish from Fewa Lake, caught by security guards in the local irrigation office where he worked. We called those “Good Fridays” because he and my mother would prepare an elaborate meal — deep-fried trout marinated in curry and yogurt and a thick fish-head stew — while my brother and I studied our multiplication tables.
If Fridays were good, Saturdays were grand. After my father and I would return from the butcher with bags of perfectly cubed goat meat, Mom would start cooking: In our tiny kitchen she would chop red onions and tomatoes, soak cumin and coriander seeds in water, and then grind them with garlic and green chilies on a flat stone with a pestle. As rice, dal and vegetables cooked separately, she would saute the onions, basil leaves, cloves and cardamom, then fry the goat in a pressure cooker sitting on a coiled clay heater. She would scoop the paste from the stone, add it to the cooker, throw in a few pinches of turmeric and a little salt, and close the lid. When the pressure cooker whistled for the third time — 25 to 30 minutes later — lunch was almost ready.
The dish that emerged was something my father would describe as first-class khasi ko maasu: extraordinary goat curry.
That’s how I became obsessed with goat. But in the 11 years I’ve lived in the United States, feeding my obsession hasn’t been so simple, particularly since I crave the dishes of my boyhood.
Unlike the Nepali dishes at home, the Jamaican goat curry I’ve tried at Caribbean restaurants in New York and Washington is cooked with potatoes and a single curry powder, rather than all the spices that add so much complex flavor. The ones served in Indian and Nepali restaurants are slightly better, but most of them use the same curry sauce they use in chicken and lamb dishes, and they often serve more bones than succulent meat. That’s why I’d rather cook my own goat.
When I make goat dishes with my Nepali friends, it’s usually over a weekend, evoking memories of those Saturdays back home, where we sit together and eat for hours. Cooking for non-Nepali friends, however, is always different. Many who have never eaten it ask a series of questions — Why would you eat such a cute animal? Does it smell? Is it tastier than rabbit? — before they are convinced it is worth trying. As for me, I can’t think of a better meat. It’s gamey and, especially when the meat cooks with spices, wonderfully unique; goat manages to taste so rich even though the meat is lean.
Goat meat is becoming more accessible here, thanks in part to immigrants like me from parts of the world where it’s appreciated more than in America — not just Nepal but India, the Caribbean, the Middle East and elsewhere. But to get it, I still have to go to grocery stores in the suburbs of Virginia or Maryland.
None of that was an issue when I was a child, when goat was such a prominent part of our culture.
On those grand Saturdays, the excitement would start early; I would join my father on a short walk to see Mustakim, the butcher my father had been buying meat from since 1983, when he first moved to Pokhara. We would wait in a long line, then when Mustakim would see us, he would ask, “How many kilos today, sir?”
Unlike other customers, my father was very particular about what parts of the goat he wanted. “First, promise me this is not sheep,” he would occasionally say to Mustakim, wanting assurance that it was freshly slaughtered and indeed goat, not an old sheep left from the previous day. Then he would ask for a part of the upper foreshank, cuts from below the neck, a little bit of short loin, a few chunks from the neck and a big part of the leg — all chopped into even pieces. Before he paid, he’d ask for a fistful of goat fat.
If my father was a goat connoisseur, my grandfather was his guru. Every year for Dashain, the biggest festival of the year for Nepali Hindus, the entire family would get together at my grandparents’ house in the village; it was a seven-hour bus ride from Pokhara, followed by a five-hour walk. But long before the 10-day festival began every fall, my grandfather would start raising two goats in his thatched shed: one to take three hours away to the temple to sacrifice in the name of Goddess Durga, the other for the family feast. When I would visit in winter, I’d sit next to him by the fire during dinner, when he would take a lump of cooked rice in his palm, pour a ladle of ghee (clarified butter) into it and shape it into an oval. One by one, he would form them and put them on a banana leaf next to his plate as he ate. After dinner, he would grab those rice balls and head to the stable and the baby goats.
“We have to fatten them up for Dashain, understand?” he would say.
Eight months later, when we met for the festival, the kids had grown to become beasts, looking both feisty and delicious. And in our household — I’d argue this is true in most Nepali households — no part of the goat went to waste. From ears to entrails, there was a delicacy for everything. Even the blood collected during slaughter (from a steel bowl held under its neck) was used: Once it coagulated, it was sauteed in oil, garlic and coriander for the first dish.
When the entire goat was butchered, my parents would get to work. My father was known for his goat pakku, also called kaalo maasu (“blackened meat”), named because the goat is fried for hours in a giant copper pot until it blackens, and then mixed with about a dozen spices. Over the years, I watched my father make goat pakku so many times that I can still remember at what intervals he’d stir it, with a wooden spoon so big it looked like an oar.
While my father was marinating the tenderloin in mustard oil, garlic, ginger and cumin to make kebabs, my cousins and I would steal parts of the ear and some boneless remains from the neck of the goat, plus a matchstick and a bunch of hay from the pile meant to feed the buffaloes. We’d run downhill to the river, start a fire, roast the goat pieces and devour them, savoring the joy of something we kept just to us boys.
On the last day of the festival, my grandfather would bring from the temple the head of the sacrificed goat; the cheeks and tongue would be fried, a stew made from the bones.
A couple of years after I came to the United States for college in 2003, I heard the news: My parents had given up meat. They had decided to follow a religious movement within Hinduism that worships Shiva and bars its adherents from eating meat. They’d given up garlic and onions, too.
When I returned home the first time, my mother served a seven-course meal, entirely with vegetables. I worried that my culinary adventures were over. How would I still get my goat fix? I’d cooked lunches and dinners in the house since I was little, but I didn’t know how to perfect a delicious goat curry, let alone pakku, roast, kidneys and entrails.
I decided to restart the adventures in my own kitchen.
In college, it was hard to find goat, so I’d buy lamb and make a simple curry with onions, tomatoes, cumin and coriander. After four years, when I went to graduate school in New York, I took frequent trips to Jackson Heights and Astoria, buying several kilos of goat meat, storing them in the freezer and cooking on Sunday evenings so it lasted me the entire week. In the beginning, I used to call my mother and ask for the sequence I should follow to make these dishes, but most of the time I simply try to remember how my parents cooked. One year I bought half a goat, cooked it, and ate it throughout Christmas break with one of my best friends.
My parents visited the United States for the first time during those grad school years. My mom cooked lavish meals of vegetables — shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower, mustard greens, split beans, lentils — and no goat.
A few days before they returned to Nepal, I decided to open my mouth.
“Papa, I understand you and Mom are never eating meat again,” I said. “But will you still cook it for me?”
He looked at my mother, she smiled, and then he said, “Okay, go buy it, and I’ll make it for you.”
It took him three batches to turn the 11 pounds I bought into goat pakku, and almost the entire day. I saved it in the freezer, and for weeks after they’d left, I would take about half a dozen pieces out, re-fry them in onions and tomatoes, add water, then let it simmer over low heat. My Saturdays had become grander again.
Once I got a job and had a decent kitchen, I made cooking goat a priority. Goat was expensive in Washington. But so was booze, I rationalized. On weekends and during special gatherings with my Nepali friends to celebrate our festivals, you know what I cook. Groups of us periodically go to a farm in Manassas, where we buy a goat and have it slaughtered and butchered. I take a few pounds and fry it for about 45 minutes (it goes much more quickly than my father’s huge batches), then throw in a dozen spices and stir it almost as carefully as my father did, making sure the meat doesn’t disintegrate as it darkens.
Hadi, the butcher I go to these days at Halalco in Falls Church, immigrated here from Pakistan. During my first couple of visits, he thought I was Pakistani, too, as I would speak to him in my weak Urdu, asking for parts of the goat as specifically as my father would.
Over the years, my parents have become even more devout. Meat is not allowed in the house. When I visit Nepal, I occasionally buy mutton or goat pickle in a jar, and hide it under my bed. During Dashain, my father meticulously cooks half a dozen mushroom dishes, all delicious. But he knows how much I love goat. (When I post photos of my goat curry and goat pakku on Facebook, he is quick to press the “like” button.) So occasionally he whispers to me, making sure my mother doesn’t hear, that his friends have invited me for an afternoon snack — such as a mountain goat’s fried liver and slow-cooked leg stew, served with beaten rice — and that I should go.
Last month, as I packed my bags to leave Nepal after a long trek, he walked into my room with a small jar, wrapped in layers of plastic and then duct tape. It was a thick chili paste, with pink salt and Sichuan pepper.
“Just add a spoonful when you cook goat,” he said. “It’s going to be first class.”