Meat scandals highlight growing taste for exotic animals

Horrified by the horse meat scandal? In an uproar about eating lion meat?

For some, the idea of knowingly --or unknowingly --consuming animals associated more with a zoo than a restaurant has turned many a stomach.

Earlier this month, horse DNA was discovered in products labeled “100 percent beef” in Britain, France and Sweden, causing several food distributors to yank their products off the shelf.  This came as an Illinois state representative introduced a bill banning the sale of lion meat. Rep. Luis Arroyo said he believed at least two sites in Illinois were selling illegal lion meat from Africa, though the law maker didn't identify the sellers. Arroyo told the Chicago Sun-Times that lions are zoo animals and “there's other meats we can eat besides the lions.”

These incidents got Fox Foodie thinking about what "other meats" you can eat --legally of course.

Exotic game distributors tell that not only can you actually eat many animals you'd see in a zoo, from alpaca to zebra --even bear -- more people than ever are choosing to dine on the wild side.

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Czimer’s Game & Seafood in Homer Glen, Illinois sells lion, bear and once, a long ago, rhino. “It was the closest that you could come to butchering a dinosaur,” says owner Richard Czimer.

Czimer is certainly not alone. Savenor’s in Massachusetts offers turtle, alligator and a hat trick of hooves: pig, beef and goat feet. U.K.-based Alternative Meats offers a wide selection of typical British game birds as well as kudu (a type of antelope), blesbok (another type of antelope) and zebra. You can get rattlesnake (skinned and coiled), kangaroo and camel at Russ McCurdy’s Nevada-based Exotic Meats USA.

McCurdy says there’s now a greater acceptance of exotic meat than ever before, but taking that first bite is always a little scary for beginners.

When eating exotic meat, he says, your brain is going to go with whatever your tastebuds tell it. “Your tastebuds are saying, ‘Are we gonna live through this?'" Get over that small hump, he says, and the world of exotic meat is your oyster.

McCurdy's obsession with exotic meat when he was in the military, stationed in Antarctica where he regularly dined on elk and venison.  He left the service and held a variety of good jobs but the allure of exotic meat never left him. Stymied by an inconsistent exotic meat supply he went into the business himself in 1992.

Both Czimer and McCurdy, who’ve eaten everything they sell, agree that exotic meats have a taste all their own. Since the exotic meat market is small the animals are farm-raised in small herds, pasture-fed and processed in USDA-approved slaughterhouses. Surprisingly, they say farm raised meat --which is slaughtered and immediately processed --is not particularly gamey. Field-dressing and letting meat dry, as hunters do, increases gaminess.

So how does it compare to your good old standard beef or pork?

Most exotic meat, such as American bison, alpaca, water buffalo, antelope, yak, is lean to very lean (except for bear and lion). Fat acts as an insulator when cooking and since exotic meats have little to no marbling, cook them at lower temperatures and cook them more quickly than familiar proteins. Forget well-done; there’s too little fat and your exotic steak will end up the consistency of a hoof.

Most exotics require only salt and pepper and a light brush of oil before cooking. “People want to taste the animal,” says Czimer. “You don’t want to mask it with a lot of spices.”

While cats with dots, spots or stripes can’t be raised for commercial slaughter, says Czimer (who did six months in 2003 for illegally trafficking in endangered species) lion meat is legal for sale in the U.S. It’s hard to compare lion to other meats, he says.

“You just know that you’ve never had that flavor before,” he explains. He likes the back legs for roasts, the shoulders for stew, the trimmings ground up for burgers. As with beef and pork, lion loin, is the most desirable cut. He suggests wrapping a lion roast with bear bacon (the same way you lay bacon over a pork tenderloin) to increase succulence.

And the other exotics? Iguanas’ deep pockets, breast plates, cartilage require much “cracking and digging” to extract the meat, he says, making it “harder to cook than a rattlesnake.” He compares it to “meaty chicken” and recommends braising them (they come skinned) and using in stews, chili or soup. Iguana goes especially well with mango.

Camel tastes a lot like goat, but can be stringy. McCurdy likes camel burgers and sliders because “patties ensure a consistent product.” Alpaca, llama and guanaco remind him of camel, but not of goat. Kangaroo tastes like elk and is leaner and higher in protein. Brush with olive oil, lightly season and cook two-minutes on each side, no more.

Lion tastes a lot like beef but mellower, and less dense than venison. “It’s not really off-the-wall,” he says, and has “an identifiably different taste,” as befits the King of the Beasts.

While exotic meat is good anytime, he likes rattlesnake “when there’s lots of drinking going on” with frog’s legs on the side. While, most exotics look like beef or chicken, these two, says, McCurdy, “well, there’s no hiding what they are.”

Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and go for it.