Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Goats Beware: You are Delicious and... Healthy?

The first time I ever tasted a goat I genuinely tasted goat. It wasn't meat I ate, it was cheese. I was having lunch with family at the Ritz Carlton in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, and among the finer things laid out on the table was a local, artisan goat cheese. It tasted like goat, and not in a good way. My childhood best friend's family owned a hobby goat farm. We spent most of our summers wandering around that farm, hurding goats around, feeding them, milking them, stepping in their poop. So I known their smell intimately well, and that cheese captured the essence of a live goat.

The second time I tasted goat was a little closer to the capital. My Haitian aunt had prepared a banquet for a friend's baby shower. I escaped the shower, but not before she made me try her goat stew — a delicious recipe imported from her island.

The third time was on the other side of the planet at about the same latitude — the 38th parallel. This time the animal was just as much medicinal as it was gastronomical, and the results made me a confirmed lover of goat.

In downtown Pyeongtaek, as you walk away from AK Plaza, you will find Daejeon Heuk Yeomso Gukbap (대전흑염소국밥), which means "Daejeon Black Goat Stew" in English. It is far down the street on your left, guarded by a church and set back on the side of a hill between a garden supply store and a flower shop

With its rust holes; plastic siding; crumbling pavement; and squishy, yellow, linoleum floors, it isn't the fanciest of places; but most truly great Korean eateries tend to look like potential relics of the Korean War, and this is one of them.

The menu isn't very diverse since Korean restaurants tend to specialize in a single perfected dish. There are two styles of goat stew: one with more meat (teuk yeomso gukbap 특염소국밥) and a cheaper one (yeomso gukbap 염소국밥) with less. Those who want to share a pot of goat stew can order the yeomso jeongol (염소전골). For a little variety, there is the expensive goat mu-chim (yeomso mu-chim 염소무침), which is sauced goat meat and vegetables.

My friend and guide, Park Junsik, and I ordered the more meaty goat stew for lunch. Like most traditonal Korean meals the dish is accompanied by a variety of sides. There weren't many, just the basics: a plate of kimchi, a bowl of rice, and another dish with raw garlic and hot peppers with ssamjang (쌈장) sauce for dipping. Additional sauces and spices like dadegi (다대기), a spicy-salty-oceanie paste, were provided for altering the stew to suit your taste or for dipping your chunks of tender goat meat.

While there were not many sides, they weren't needed. The black, ceramic bowls of stew, which seemed to contain just enough food to satisfy at first, contained more than enough to gorge us both to near discomfort. And neither of us had a full stomach when we walked in. All Junsik had eaten that day was a glass of orange juice. I had eaten breakfast, but since then had only eaten a slice of toast and a kumquat.

Shikgochujang and perilla seeds
The spicy, peppery stew was fantastic. It did not take many spoonfuls before Junsik exclaimed, "Oh! I fall in love. Really good." He continued to groan in delight throughout the meal as I took pictures and tapped notes on my phone. True to the menu, the stews we got were loaded with large chunks of goat meat. Goat is definitely a dark, gamey meat, but for those who aren't fond of the flavor, the accompanying shikgochujang (식고추장) dip mixed with perilla seeds completely cut the gamey flavor.

Interestingly enough, the flavor of the stew is strikingly similar to boshintang (보신탕), Korea's controversial dog stew. In fact, the last time I had boshintang one of my dining mates, an American, compared the flavor of dog to the flavor of goat. I had not tasted goat at the time, so I could only take them at their word, but now I see what they were talking about.

Also like boshintang, goat stew is reputed to be good for one's health. This is hardly surprising since it seems virtually every Korean food is advertised as quasi-medicinal. But of the many animals on their menu, like dog, goat meat in particular is considered curative.

According to an academic article published by the College of Natural Resources at Daegu University by Min Taigi and co-authors, there are records of goat meat being used for "healing and prevention from certain diseases... in old literatures in Korea and China." The tradition continues today. According to the article, goat meat is "a healthy food that helps the seasonal attunement of the human body." Apparently the smell of goat meat doesn't help its popularity in Korea (ours smelled fine). As a result of this, it is more commonly consumed in extract form. Yes, somewhere a beverage is made from boiled down goat flesh mixed with herbs as a part of Korean traditonal medicine. I can't imagine that it would smell better than the meat, but, smelly or not, the extract supposedly makes a fine gift for aging parents who are growing forgetful and brittle of bone. It reportedly also promotes health in pregnant women, discharged patients, mentally drained students, and men looking to enhance the powers of their own meat.

Such medicinal claims are common enough, more than making them a tough pill to swallow; nevertheless, Junsik seemed to benefit from the goat. Having not slept at all the night before because he was sending out job applications, he was unsurprisingly tired. Yet after lunch he claimed he felt better. "I feel like it makes us healthly," he said. Not only was he no longer tired, but he said his blood felt fresher. I'm not sure what "fresh blood" feels like, perhaps it is the feeling of radiating warmth that the dish provokes in your limbs.

Could this mean that goat stew does in fact help students who have pulled all nighters and found their minds reduced to well, an extract? Or is it more likely the starved and exhausted Junsik merely gave his body what it needed — food?

Before you pass judgement, try a steaming bowl of goat stew yourself and see what happens. Maybe your health will be better for it.

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