Samui Wining & Dining
Head in the Sand?

Why ostrich shouldn’t be so under-rated.

 

2-3It’s surprising what people used to eat. The rich ones, I mean, not the peasants! The aristocracy of Europe enjoyed a tremendously varied diet when it came to meat, fish and fowl. Of course, today, in a world where many animals are in danger of dying out, our awareness and priorities have changed. Unregulated hunting has all but exterminated wild game in Africa. Ruthless mechanised fishing techniques have destroyed the balance of our oceans. Even so, most Western nations remain surprisingly conservative in their approach to food. Counting on the fingers of one hand ticks off beef, pork, veal maybe, chicken, turkey and . . . well, you tell me! That’s about it, not allowing for seafood.

      Only a few hundred years ago there was a huge range of fowl that those privileged few enjoyed. Chicken was considered a lowly barnyard beast, only suitable for farmers. But peacocks, swans, bustards (now almost extinct in Europe), geese, ducks, pheasants, quail, woodcocks, lapwings, plovers, pigeons, thrushes, larks and another dozen domestic birds were not only on the menu, but also considered delicacies. It was a common practice at

banquets to fit three or four birds each inside the other, according to size, before cooking them. No wonder one children’s nursery rhyme has the line ‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’.

      But there was one bird that never appeared at any of these occasions. By rights it should have, as it’s the biggest bird of all. But it didn’t because it couldn’t – it didn’t exist at the time, at least not in Europe. You would have had to import them from Africa. This was the ostrich, found only on that continent, and it came as a family, along with its cousins, emus, kiwis, rheas and cassowaries. All of these have the distinction of being amongst the very few flightless birds (the only other well-known one being the penguin). And the family’s other singularity is that, unlike nearly all edible fowl, these birds have only red meat; there’s no white breast meat at all.

       This alone has been the main reason why ostrich meat, although not difficult to find in the shops, hasn’t really caught on. In our current climate of health-awareness and semi-vegetarian diets, ostrich is viewed with suspicion. The dark meat appears to be not so far removed from beef. There isn’t the comforting illusion of tender, bloodless, fish-like flesh. In the back of our minds there’s the feeling that it’s no doubt tough and chewy. On the one hand, it won’t appeal to the steak and burger fraternity. And on the other, it’s not fresh, light and healthy. In other words, it’s not too pleasant and it’s not so good for you. But this couldn’t be further from the truth!

       Ostriches have been hunted in the wild, and farmed, ever since the Stone Age. The Romans prized the birds not only for their flesh, but also for their dramatic tail feathers and their skin, which makes particularly strong leather, ideal for light armour. By the time the 19th century had come around, they were almost hunted to extinction, such was the world demand for their fashionable feathers. But this was a benefit in disguise – it was discovered for the first time that ostriches could exist quite happily in climates ranging from South Africa to Alaska. Thousands of ostrich farms appeared all over the world. And, by the time that their feathers fell out of fashion (at the end of the First World War) the fate of the ostrich was no longer in the balance; just the opposite in fact, and they had become firmly re-established, this time all over the world.

      But when it comes to eating ostrich, I think everyone is in for a surprise. If we pretend I hadn’t yet told you what it was, it almost sounds like the perfect food. It’s low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein, iron, and calcium, and it tastes very similar indeed to beef. Amazingly enough, ostrich has actually 66% less fat than beef, half the fat of chicken and fewer calories than beef, chicken, turkey, pork or lamb. Remarkable! Although ostrich meat is not strongly-flavoured, it has a comparable richness of taste to red meat. But probably one of the most commercially-appealing aspects is that the meat doesn’t shrink when you cook it, making it ideal for burgers and steaks. And, on top of all this, as an added bonus, ostrich meat naturally repels the harmful bacteria responsible for those memorable summer barbeque-induced food poisoning cases. This really is a better and healthier alternative to beef steak. All it needs it a good solid push from the Intergalactic Ostrich Marketing Board and we all might find our eating habits changing overnight!

      You’ll find ostrich popping up all over the place on Samui, but you need to know where to look. It’s impossible for us to know every item in all of the hundreds of fine restaurants that are spread all over the island. But if you’ve now been fired up and are set on an ostrich hunt, then we’ve done our job. Many people remain blinkered when it comes to the food that they like. But there’s no reason at all why you have to keep your head in the sand – not now you know the facts about eating ostrich!

 

    
Rob De Wet


 


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