When I was kid we ate a lot of ‘off cuts’ like ox tongue, tail, and shank. I guess with six brothers, it was an affordable route for my Dad back in the seventies. It’s funny how those cuts of meat have gained prestige in the west over the last few decades! The last time I was back in Canada, buying oxtail was comparable to top sirloin!
Here in Tanzania, I admire the respect my local friends have for animals - NOTHING is wasted. I’m told that in some slaughtering ‘ceremonies’ where the Masaai people butcher a cow, not a single drop of blood hits the ground. Well, I’m not drinking cattle blood just yet but over the last few years, I’ve been rediscovering the ‘budget-cuts’ of my childhood. Beef shank, lamb neck, oxtail, all of these tougher cuts of meat have locked up within them secret flavours full of depth and complexity.
Since moving to East Africa in 2004, I’ve gone back and forth with chicken and beef, sometimes choosing to buy imported and sometimes going with local meats. I find home-grown to be on the tough side but I also find it to be incredibly flavourful. Braising is the answer to tough meat and if you haven’t discovered braising as a cooking method… your missing out.
Last night I cooked up beef shank with some good friends who have just moved here. One of my guests’ allergies to sulphites and dairy meant no red wine, no balsamic vinegar, no butter - how was I going to unlock those wonderful hidden flavours? Even my cider vinegar had sodium metabisulphite in it (why on earth does vinegar need a preservative???)
The answer turned out to be an old standby I’ve relied upon for years - tamarind! It has the acids and the attitude to draw out the shyest of flavours. You can buy it in many forms here or just pick it off of a tree. In the west, it’s typically sold in a pressed brick. Just break off a big chunk (seeds and all), boil it in a little water then mash the whole lot through a strainer. In minutes you’ll have a paste that if you taste it, you’ll pucker so hard your eyes will bang into each other. Tamarind loves any meat, fish, and poultry and it gets along great with coconut and lime (just not at the same time!). It’s one of my favourite marinades and sauce bases.
The shank turned out great. Some tips are:
- trim the meat well, especially the outer layer that separated the meet and the skin (this will prevent the meat from going bowl-shaped when you brown it and get rid of some chewy stuff at the same time)
- use the trimmings to make a quick stock; be sure to throw in your favourite spice flavourings
- use lots of celery as part of your aromatics, we get a local celery here that is much smaller, you can’t eat it raw but it’s packed with flavour
- after cooking remove the meat and blend the liquid rather than thickening it
- serve the meat like steak and pour the blended sauce over top
Enjoy and let me know how it goes!