Lamb Stew

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LAMB STEW. Lamb stew is a preparation in which tough cuts of lamb (by definition, taken from a sheep younger than one year of age in Europe or younger than two years of age in the United States, at the time of slaughter) or mutton (lamb's counterpart on the older side of the dividing line) are cut into small pieces, seared in hot fat, and simmered slowly in a flavored liquid until moist and tender; in the process, its liquid medium becomes a glossy sauce rich with the flavors of the meat. The tender, high-status rack portion of the lamb comprises only four percent of its live weight. Most other parts of the meatleg, shank, shoulder, breast, neck, arm, and trimincrease in both flavor and toughness with the age and activity level of the sheep. Such cuts are best prepared with a method that can at once tenderize the meat, preserve its moistness, and mellow its flavor. Stewing fits these needs particularly well.

Stewing is most effective on older, tougher cuts of meat rich with collagena stiff protein found in connective tissue. With ample exposure to sufficiently high temperatures for a length of time relative to the muscle's toughness, slow stewing converts collagen to gelatin, yielding tender bits of meat perfumed with the cooking liquid, and a sauce rich with sheen and body. A simmer just below the boiling point is ideal, as such a temperature is sufficiently hot to make the gelatin soluble over time, yet gentle enough to keep the muscle moist and tender, rather than causing constriction and exudation of most of its juices, as would occur under a rolling boil. Such processes constitute the physical and chemical basis of stewing lamb. The cooks and the influence of the prevailing culture determine whether the stew is made with breast, shoulder, or neck; cooked in a clay, cast iron, or copper-bottom pot; or flavored with rosemary and red wine, dill and lemon, or cardamom and ginger.

A testament to the effectiveness of the stewing method for lamb and mutton (here used somewhat interchangeably, owing to the varied legal definitions) is the plethora of national, regional, and individual variations found in a diverse array of cultures. (See the Table for some of these variations.) Throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, lamb stews are typically flavored with ingredients like wine, garlic, rosemary, thyme, parsley and other herbs, and bacon, onion, carrot, celery, cabbage, tomato, or potato. From northern to southern Africa, lamb stews vary from the Moroccan tangine (or tagine ) to Ethiopian versions with butter and berbere, a chili and spice paste, to South African European-style

A sample of national and regional variations of lamb stew
Region/Country, Name(s) Key Flavoring Ingredients
Spain, estufado de cordero Chorizo sausage and blood sausage, garlic, wine.
France, navarin d'agneau; printanier Turnips, root vegetables, wine; spring vegetables.
Norway, lammestuing Cabbage and peppercorns.
Ireland, Irish stew Potatoes and onions.
Basque region Garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes, wine.
South Africa, lensieskos Lentils, ginger, tomatoes, chili, garlic.
Ethiopia, sega wat Butter, onion, berbere chili and spice paste.
Morocco, lamb tangine Carrot, chickpeas, spices, garlic, harissa chili paste.
Eastern Asia
India, kashmiri gosht; badami gosht Nuts, yogurt, onions, spices including cardamom, cloves, turmeric, coriander, chilies, saffron
China, hot pot Soy sauce, chili paste, garlic, ginger, scallion, rice wine.
Native Andean, huatia Uncultivated herbs, chilies.
Cuba, chilindron de carnero Bacon, lime, onion, bell pepper, tomato, garlic, cumin, oregano.
Middle East and Arab World
khoresche esfanaj Lemon, dill, and green vegetables.
keshkeg herriseh Porridge of lamb and wheat with onion, bay leaf.
Syria, yukhnee Tomatoes, garlic, onion, spices.
Persia, khoresh qormeh sabzi Red beans, onion, turmeric, lemon, fresh herbs.
Persia, Armenia, Morocco, and elsewhere Apricots, garlic, onion, lemon, spices including turmeric, coriander, ginger, cayenne, cumin.
Turkey, pirpirim asi Assorted pulses, uncultivated greens.
Sephardim, msouki Onion, garlic, fava beans, fresh peas, harissa chili paste, nutmeg.
Egypt, fatta Pilaf-style rice and bread with stewed mutton.

stews of lamb and legumes. In China, lamb stews are flavored with fermented sauces; in India, they are thickly flavored with spices, nuts, and yogurt, as they are in many other parts of Asia. Throughout much of Oceania and in parts of the United States, where lamb is big business, the stews incorporate flavors from throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Even in traditional cuisines of North America, where lamb is a relative newcomer, it is often substituted for indigenous meats, as an example, for alpaca meat in the Andean stew huatia.

But it is in the Middle East and the Arab World, more than anywhere else, where lamb stew has the broadest variety of manifestationsfrom a lamb-and-wheat porridge, to a stew with fresh dill and lemon, to some with red beans or fava beans, or with other legumes, many with apricots and spices, and even more containing tomatoes.

While there is likely no definitive answer as to why lamb stew is so important in the Middle East, there are some strong clues, both material and intangible, that can help to explain its centrality. The most evident reason is that Mesopotamia is the home of the domesticated lamb, with a tradition of raising sheep for wool and meat that goes back more than ten thousand years. Nearly as ancient is lamb's religious significance: roasted sheep ranked high in status among the early Semitic sacrifices, both prebiblical and biblical; and the paschal lamb of both Passover and Easter underlie references to Christ as the "Lamb of God." Even today, Christians in the Middle East and Mediterranean traditionally serve roast lamb for Easter; Sephardim serve stewed lamb for Passover; and Arabs serve roast or stewed lamb for nearly every feastbirths, marriages, and death anniversaries, in addition to those of strictly religious celebrations.

Moreover, elements of lamb stew indicate some of the shared values of Middle Eastern culture. Societies of the Middle East as well as others consider it good etiquette to serve food in tender bite-size morsels as a display of time, effort, and hospitality on the part of the host, who would not have guests struggle to consume their food. Whole roast lamb is often presented and served off the bone, in contrast to the European tradition of displaying a formidable roasted joint or whole animal. A rich stew of lamb also highlights the accompanying rice, couscous, bread, or grain, accompaniments of simple integrity that complement the richness of the lamb. Many Middle Eastern people also place additional value on the local origins of the sheep, which is considered far superior to imported lamb, beef, or poultry, and is certainly preferred to pork, forbidden among observant Muslims and Jews.

Lamb stew has a deep history and tradition, a common base with seemingly infinite variations, a strong, complex, and pervasive flavor, and firm entrenchment in the surrounding culture. It is often seen as symbolic of the people and region of the Middle East.


Cox, Beverly. "Huatia, an Andean Winter Stew." Native Peoples 13, no. 2 (February/March 2000): 4243.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. New York: Collier Books, 1984.

Romans, John R., William J. Costello, C. Wendell Carlson, Marion L. Greaser, and Kevin W. Jones. The Meat We Eat. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers, 2001.

Ward, Susie, Claire Clifton, and Jenny Stacey. The Gourmet Atlas. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Wolfert, Paula. Paula Wolfert's World of Food. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Zubaida, Sami, and Richard Tapper, eds. Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1994.

Jonathan Deutsch

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Lamb Stew

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