Sunday, July 24, 2011

"My Dinner Looked Me in the Eye"

As fair warning, if you think meat comes from cellophane packages at the grocery store, this might not be the post for you. I can also say that if what follows didn't turn me into a vegetarian that I'm pretty confident in saying that I'll eat meat for the rest of my life.

As we approached camp on the fifth night of our trek to Ladakh, we noticed something just further down the valley from our tents. A flock of sheep. Then we noticed our cook (Deepak) and his assistant (Surya) standing in in the middle of the animals. Immediately, Glenn and I knew what was up; they were negotiating for our dinner.

Now let me tell you something about Glenn. The man likes his food; he's not afraid to admit it. I'm pretty sure the first thing ever heard him say, was, "So did Judith tell you that I eat a lot of food." This was addressing Sanjeev at the trek introductory briefing in Kathmandu last year when meeting him for the first time. Of all the foods out there, lamb is his favorite. To say he was excited about the prospect of a fresh lamb would be an understatement.

Unfortunately, our guys weren't able to strike a deal. Apparently, the shepherds didn't have "selling" power and the owner of the flock was down the valley in the next village, a couple hours away. We would have to wait at least one day for fresh lamb. That night, instead, we "settled" on pizza, a staple camp food.
Someone likes Deepak's pizza
The next night, we stayed in the village of Fangila (much more on this village in a future post; well, less about the village itself and more about the joys of using the word "fangila" for various purposes). As we settled at the camp, Lindsay made mention to Sanjeev that she had seen a chicken in town, which is apparently uncommon based on the elevation. As soon as she mentioned it, his eyes lit up. It was obvious he was going to try and buy the chicken. Apparently, it was the only chicken in town. Fail.

The following day we camped in a beautiful canyon which, as luck would have it, had yet another herd of goats and sheep approach as the sun set. Negotiations ensued (which I asked Sanjeev if I could document with photos but unsurprisingly he said it would only drive up the price); however, that day was some sort of holy day or someone spiritual's birthday (these are the details you forget when you're a carnivore in hot pursuit of a fresh lamb). No lamb that night either.
Camp on our eighth night (i.e., Lamb Night)
Our luck changed on our fourth night of trying. It's cute how I say "our" night of trying; I was more an observer and beneficiary, less an actual participant. In late afternoon a herd of sheep and goats again approached the camp. A very large herd. And by "approached" I really mean "meandered within." Sanjeev immediately dispatched two trusted party members, Sarbu and Galpo, to find the shepherds. Sarbu returned with good news. The shepherds were having tea two kilometers up the valley but were coming soon, and they were willing to part with a sheep.

That's right a "sheep." The entire time we had heard the word "lamb" and had expected a young sheep and had visions of New Zealand lamb chops. This is the part where we learned "lamb" meant sheep in these parts and that "mutton" (which I had always associated with older sheep) actually meant goat. Whatever, at this point it was more about the getting meat. Of course, I say that like we were starving, which wasn't the case at all.
Deepak takes stock before the shepherd's arrive
After another cup of tea with our kitchen staff (this is starting to sound like a Craig Mortensen book, well, except for all this really happened), a deal in principle was struck with the shepherds and the "hunt" began. They had a specific sheep they were willing to sell, which also doubled, we believe, as their oldest sheep (also known as the sheep with the lowest net present value).
The shepherds approach
Catching one specific sheep in a large herd is harder than you might think. The entire process of chasing, cornering, and capturing took about thirty minutes. Part of what makes the process take time is that sheep don't really want to get caught. Something tells me that a sheep knows what's going to happen when it gets caught. I'm not giving the effort it's entire due in words here; however, the guys were more tired from the chasing and cornering than from the full day's trek. Of course, as customers we lazily sat in our camp chairs and watched the entire scene unfold. There's a morbid curiosity that goes along with this type of thing along the same line as the gawker's delays we've all sat in with accidents on the highway.
Sarbu during the chase
Surya with the unluckiest lamb
Begrudgingly leashed to a rope, the sheep was marched past us on the way to the kitchen tent. This was, admittedly, awkward. Judith really wanted no part of seeing the actual animal we would later consume. She did a great job of hiding her eyes. For the most part. Unfortunately, she turned at absolutely the wrong instant and caught the sheep's eye directly. So yes, Judith's dinner looked her right in the eye.
The sheep perp walk (before Judith's dinner looked her the eye)
There were final negotiations on a price, and the shepherds departed our camp and took the rest of the herd down the valley. How much does a sheep cost? We never found out the price of our sheep; however, Sanjeev had previously mentioned that a sheep would go in the 3500 - 4000 rupee range (approximately $77 - $88). This seemed expensive to me before I started doing the math. There were 11 people that were able to eat 3 very big dinners, so well under $3 per serving.
Final negotiations outside Sanjeev's tent
I'll skip past the actual butchering. Just know that the staff did it professionally and quietly and, is the usual case in this part of the world, no part of the animal went to waste.

A couple hours later we had a feast. That feast continued for the two subsequent nights on the trek as well. We had lamb soup, lamb curry, fried lamp chops, lamb momo's. What Forrest Gump was to shrimp, Deepak was to lamb. And see how easy it is to say "lamb" instead of "sheep". Lamb-loving Glenn was in heaven.

Even though I was a mere observer to this process, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it's as close as any Luth male has been to catching his own meal (with the exception of fishing) since my Dad's childhood days on the farm in Ohio. While some will consider what I just described as barbaric, it's a good reminder that the protein you consume doesn't originate from the grocery store.


  1. So wait ... is that the case in all of India also? That mutton means goat??

    And this? "After another cup of tea with our kitchen staff (this is starting to sound like a Craig Mortensen book, well, except for all this really happened)" was hysterical!

  2. I was telling a friend this story at lunch today and her comment (before I even I could even make the "goat" comment) was "well, mutton is goat."

    I need to do a little more research on this but it's possible we may be the two expats completely out of the know on this one!

  3. John-Great BLOG! As a farm girl I really enjoyed it! I also checked the USDA lamb market out of curiousity. Slaughter lambs are ranging from 150 to 210 per hundred weight. So if your little buddy was 100 lb then he would have been over $150 in the U.S. I think your boys did well, despite that being expensive for India. Here is the report if you want to read more.


  4. John-Also...I always thought mutton was just old sheep meat. Lamb is young sheep meat. I didn't think goat was in that mix, but I wouldn't want to know what they are calling mutton in India.

  5. Mutton in India = Goat
    unless you are in a hotel which has a regular tourist/expat clientele .Have been a couple of occasions where while ordering mutton have got a lamb/sheep dish at such places when actually expecting goat. Its always better to ask the waiter what meat is mutton , without actually providing a hint of whether you are expecting goat or lamb.