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Why Does Lamb Taste So Weird?



UPR has a state-wide audience, so here at Bread and Butter we try not to fixate on specific food venues. Because why would we torture you folks in Richfield and Vernal with the news that there’s a restaurant near here that serves mouthwatering Barbacoa quesadillas with hand-made tortillas cooked to a toasty crisp, melt-in-your-mouth shredded pork, dark brown candy-like caramelized onions and a side of tangy and colorful jalapeno sauce. That wouldn’t be nice.

But today I do need to mention one place specifically. It’s an Indian restaurant here in Logan – Tandoori Oven. I mention this place because I wanted to talk about a dish I had there-- lamb tikka masala. You may know that tikka masala is curried meat, slow cooked in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and cream. It’s delicious. But I was pondering last week why lamb tastes so weird. Not just lamb at Tandoori Oven, but all lamb. It’s just a weird tasting food.


Some places in the world treat lamb like a staple, but we tend not to eat much lamb in Utah, and it can be hard to find on menus or at grocery stores. If you’ve never had lamb before, this type of meat can taste … gamey? Maybe? It’s not even really a taste, I realized, as I was scooping it up with my garlic naan … as much as something your mouth just kind of senses. The first time I had lamb, it was actually mutton (which is meat from older sheep). I was 12 years old, and the taste literally made me gag. The earthy flavor was overwhelming to my somewhat inexperienced palate.


But now I like it ... kind of. I like it and hate it, both at the same time. I don’t crave lamb the same way I crave fresh peaches or dark chocolate, but when I eat it, there’s this bizarre attraction to the flavor that keeps me going … like not being able to look away from gory road kill.


It’s the same way I feel about goat cheese. In fact, goat cheese and lamb both have that same peculiar taste. It’s tart and rotten, meaty and pungent. It’s (obviously) hard to describe. And not just for me. Not much has been written about lamb’s weirdness … besides the science behind it. That “gamey” taste, for lack of a better term, lies in the meat’s fat, and is a result of the animal’s diet.


What it all comes down to is a particular type of fatty acid that lambs have and beef and chicken don’t. It's called branched-chain fatty acid. This is something that humans can detect at really low levels. Gaminess is ambiguous because it is largely detected by the receptors of our harder to describe fifth taste, umami. … which is why it hardly feels like a taste at all. Animals that are grass (rather than grain) fed, or that eat a wild diet will come across as more gamey. The same effect of diet is even more obvious in the milk of nursing females … which is why I pick it up in the goat cheese.


But the word “gamey” really does gets a bad rap. It’s definitely a stronger, more wild flavor. But blue cheese is strong. And huckleberries taste wild. If I had grown up eating lamb and drinking goat’s milk, would it have taken so long to enjoy it?


My husband says I analyze my food too much, and I probably do. Because even though I can’t quite describe or decipher the taste of lamb, I’m still going back for more.