Authenticity. It's one of today's hottest culinary trends. Many lesser known grains, vegetables and fruits are making their way into grocery stores around the U.S. — a fact celebrated by both ethnic consumers preparing cultural dishes and adventurous foodies. But in this newly arrived cultural bounty of edibles, meat is underrepresented. Less commonly consumed meat and poultry cuts that are essential to many ethnic dishes are often absent from mainstream grocery stores and from common culinary know-how. But for those seeking authenticity and for food and nutrition professionals who counsel, teach or cook, the right cut matters.
Whether counseling diverse populations or addressing culinary interests, knowing the meat types and cuts used in traditional ethnic dishes factors into cultural competence. For example, while pork is prominent in Hispanic and Asian cuisines, traditional dishes among many Middle Eastern cultures use lamb, mutton or goat as key protein sources. Muslim and Jewish dietary laws prohibit pork entirely, while many Hindus avoid beef and veal since cows are considered sacred.
Just as culinary cultures differ, so do primal meat cuts (large wholesale cuts from a carcass) and retail cuts (butchered to match consumer demand). According to the National Livestock and Meat Board's consumer research, ground beef is a mainstay for Hispanic-Americans, but not for Asian-Americans, who prefer thinly-sliced or shredded beef or pork. Caucasians purchase roasts more often than other groups, while African-Americans and Hispanics are the top consumers of deli-style beef.
In addition, terms for retail meat cuts (such as "95% lean") and poultry pieces ("boneless, skinless breast") may be confusing, or mainstream cuts may not work in certain ethnic dishes. Some butchers selling to ethnic populations note a consumer requesting "red meat" may want lean meat, while someone asking for "white meat" may mean a fattier cut.
Here is a partial list of meat and poultry cuts, and their culinary uses in kitchens worldwide.
Some lean U.S. beef cuts that could be used in ethnic dishes include flank steak, shoulder center steak, chuck shoulder steak, shank cross cuts, round roast and steak, brisket, tri-tip and 93%-lean ground beef.
Ground, Diced, Shredded
These beef options generally comes from less-expensive cuts, such as chuck, flank, shank, brisket or round. Ropa vieja is a popular Caribbean dish; seasoned, shredded beef or sliced flank steak is cooked with tomatoes, garlic, peppers and spices. Frybread topped with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, onions and beans is one version of a Navajo taco.
Generally from less-expensive beef cuts, such as chuck, flank, shank, brisket and veal shoulder, less-tender cuts are tenderized with moist-heat cooking, marinating, thin slicing or pounding. Carbonada criolla is an Argentine beef stew with fruit or corn and pumpkin. Filipinos may serve morcon — rolled flank steak stuffed with ham, sausage, hard-cooked eggs and olives.
Tender beef cuts generally are from the loin or sirloin. Veal, from a young animal, is also tender. Veal roast filled with ground meat and hard-cooked eggs is popular in the Baltic. In Japan, two popular dishes are sliced lean beef and vegetables simmered in soy sauce (sukiyaki) or broth (shabu shabu).
Some lean U.S. pork cuts, including leg and loin, are more costly and less common in some ethnic dishes. Fresh pork side and belly and picnic roast have more fat, but cost less.
Ground, Shredded, Diced
Many cultures prefer to grind, shred or dice their own pork, often from less-tender, inexpensive pork cuts, such as picnic and shoulder butt. In Chinese cuisine, ground pork is formed into meatballs for soup, or stuffed in dumplings (dim sum). Humitas or tamales — savory ground or shredded pork wrapped in a fresh corn mixture or cornmeal dough, then steamed in corn husks — are popular in South and Central America.
Less-tender, inexpensive pork cuts include shoulder butt and picnic. Pork adobo is a Filipino dish of slow-simmered, cubed pork cooked with vinegar, garlic, peppercorns and soy sauce. Mexicans may prepare birria by stewing marinated pork cubes with spicy chili sauce or tomato-chili sauce.
Side and Belly
Pork side and belly are fattier cuts of meat and the source of bacon. Different Asian cultures serve pork ribs, grilled or braised, along with various sauces. Pork belly is popular in Korean cuisine. For some Hispanics and Filipinos, pork belly, as well as pork skin, are fried to make chicharron.
Pork loin and leg are considered tender cuts. Tonkatsu is a breaded and fried pork cutlet (a thin, tender cut from the loin)popular in Japan. In Jamaica, roasted pork loin is often prepared with a with brown sugar, rum, ginger and garlic glaze.
Lamb, Mutton, Goat
Mutton comes from sheep two years of age and older. Lamb is from sheep younger than one year. Yearling mutton is in between. Lamb is tender, while mutton requires marinating and slow, moist cooking. The lamb available in today's markets is leaner than in the past. Lamb breast is higher in fat than other cuts.
Goat, which has a stronger flavor than lamb, is more popular among Caribbean, Southeast Asian and Northern African shoppers. Cabrito comes from goat slaughtered at one to three months of age, while chevon is from goat slaughtered at six to nine months. Goat is leaner than most beef, pork and lamb, with fewer calories and less fat and cholesterol, but comparable protein.
In some cuisines, goat and sheep are used interchangeably. Both are common in cuisines with large Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox Christian populations.
Less-Tender and Less-Expensive Cuts
Shoulder, shank and breast are less-tender cuts of lamb or mutton and popular in many cultures. Cubed lamb and goat may be sold as bone-in or boneless. Indo-Pakistani and Bangladeshi cooks may layer simmered spicy lamb pieces with rice, seasonings and sometimes yogurt (biryani). Navajos may prepare a stew of cubed mutton with potato, onion and vegetables such as squash, squash blossoms, corn and potatoes, sometimes serving it with blue corn dumplings.
The leg and loin are more-tender cuts. Whole legs are often marinated and roasted over an open fire in Basque cuisine. Kebabs or shashlyk — lamb cubes, often from the leg, grilled or roasted on skewers — are popular in Middle Eastern, some Central Asian and Eastern European countries.
Ground, Minced, Chopped
Many cultures prefer to grind or mince their own lamb, often from less-tender, inexpensive lamb or mutton cuts, such as shoulder, flank and foreshank. Bobotie is a South African dish of ground lamb baked with soft bread, rice or mashed potatoes; onions and garlic; curry spices; and egg-milk custard. In Turkey, baked or fried packets of pastry filled with ground lamb, cheese and spinach are called borek.
Chicken, common fare in some cultures, is considered a luxury food in others. Many cultures prefer to buy whole chickens, rather than parts, to butcher to their needs. Whole chicken is often prepared bone-in; older chicken typically is braised or stewed until tender.
Legs and Thighs
In Punjabi culture, yogurt-marinated skinless chicken thighs and legs are cooked tandoori style in a clay oven.
Pieces (May Include Bones)
Many Ethiopians enjoy doro wat, a chicken stew simmered with onion, tomato paste, chilies, seasonings and hard-cooked eggs, served with injera bread. Indonesian and Malay cultures thread thin strips of peanut sauce-marinated chicken on wooden skewers and grill them (satay). Thai cooks often prepare chunks of chicken in curries, mixed vegetable dishes and soups, sometimes with coconut milk.
Ground, Minced, Chopped
In Indo-Pakistani culture, chopped pieces of chicken are simmered with garam masala (curry spices) and onion. Filipinos may fill rice flour wrappers with ground chicken, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and palm hearts to create lumpia. To make enchiladas, Mexicans may stuff chopped or minced chicken into soft tortillas, bake them in a sauce and top with cheese.
Cultures worldwide cook whole animals for celebratory and economic reasons. Whole roast chicken stuffed with rice and pine nuts, or lemon slices and rosemary is popular in the Middle East, Greece and Turkey. Called mechoui in northern Africa, a lamb may be quartered to spit-roast in Morocco; spit-roasted lamb is served in Guadeloupe and Martinique, too. A whole, roasted pig is a festive dish in several cultures. Lechon asado is a spit-roasted pig served in the Caribbean.
Variety Meats in the Kitchen
"Offal" is a British term for variety meats, or parts of an animal that are not skeletal muscles. Besides being common in many ethnic cuisines for centuries, variety meats are trendy today. Variety meats are sought by ethnic cooks preparing familial dishes, and by cooks who have been introduced to variety meats through culinary travel, innovative restaurants and TV food shows.
Offal is often economical, protein-rich and flavorful, but because many variety meats are tougher than market meat cuts, they may require slow-cooking, chopping or grinding. Others call for careful preparation to minimize food safety risks.
From Scandinavian blood pancakes to coagulated cubes in Southeast Asian soups, the culinary use of blood differs among cultures. Blood sausage or pudding is common across cultures, including Polish kiszka, French boudin noir and Puerto Rican morcilla. Blood sausage is high in protein, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Despite the potential risk of Varian Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease, brain appears in dishes worldwide, including breaded and fried in Cuban fritters. In a Moroccan dish (mokh), brain is simmered first in spices, and then preserved in lemon sauce. Brain is a good source of protein and iron, and very high in cholesterol.
Sinewy, flavorful and gelatinous, hocks require long, slow cooking. Caribbean cultures use hocks in soups such as sopon de garbanzos. In Mexico, pig feet (trotters) are braised with aromatic seasonings and served with lime juice, salt and hot sauce (patas de puerco cocidas). Hocks are high in protein and total fat and low in iron.
Many Peruvians grill cubed beef heart on skewers (anticuchos). Simmered heart, other organ meats, onions, suet and oatmeal inside a stomach lining pouch is a noted Scottish dish (haggis). Heart is a good source of protein and iron and extremely high in cholesterol.
Intestines must be thoroughly cleaned and cooked well for food safety; simmering for hours helps tenderize them. Whether Thai deep-fried intestines served with spicy sauce (sai mu thot) or pork chitterlings of Southern or African-American cuisine, they're a good source of protein and high in total fat, saturated fats and cholesterol.
Strong in flavor, liver can be sautéed or simmered, but toughens when overcooked. Liver from younger animals is more tender and mild. Germans prepare liver with apple and onion, while some Mediterranean cuisines roast lamb liver over a fire to make splinantero. High in protein and iron, liver is also very high in vitamin A and cholesterol.
Pancreas and Thymus (Sweetbreads)
Typically poached, braised or sautéed, sweetbreads are most tender and flavorful from veal and young lamb. Latin American sweetbreads are grilled, while Turkish cooks may serve grilled sweetbreads in bread. A good source of iron, sweetbreads are high in protein, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Stomach Lining (Tripe)
Intact tripe requires long, moist cooking, but can be stir fried in small slices. Many Latin American cultures use tripe in soup, while Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines stir fry tripe, liver and ground meat in clarified butter to make dulot or dulet. Tripe is a good source of protein and is high in total fat and saturated fat.
Bony yet flavorful, tail is tough and requires long, slow braising. Gelatinous oxtail is used as a stock base for soups. Russian Jews observing a kosher diet use gelatin from the oxtail broth to make aspic. There is no nutritional data for tail in the USDA database.
Typically scalded, skinned and soaked before cooking, testicles can be sautéed, braised or poached. Argentinean, Mexican and Spanish cultures deep fry calf or bull testicles (criadillas — or "Rocky Mountain oysters" in the American West). There is no nutrition information for testicles in the USDA database.
Tongue's toughness requires slow moist-heat cooking. In Argentina and Chile, tongue may be cooked with almond sauce, tripe and sausages, or it can be sliced and tenderized in a vinegar-and-oil marinade. In Ireland, pig tongue and cheeks are cured, breaded and fried (bath chaps). Tongue is a good source of protein and iron and high in saturated fat — less so in veal tongue.
Sourcing Unique Cuts — and Culinary Insights
When recommending lean meat or poultry, choose types and cuts that fit consumers' food patterns. Visit stores in diverse neighborhoods — both mainstream supermarkets and small butchers or ethnic markets — that sell specific meat and poultry cuts for their customers' culinary needs. Familiarize yourself with the stores' signage, on-package messages and labeling so you know what your potential clients see when they shop.
Recognize regional differences, not just country traditions. For example, pork is popular in the noodle dish pancit among Catholic Filipinos, while chicken is used by Muslim Filipinos.
Contact an international or ethnic culture center in your community. Recent immigrants not only try to continue their cooking traditions, but often their community knows where to access ingredients.
Ask the butcher where you shop. Many of today's mainstream retailers sell unique cuts of meat and poultry for the growing number of adventurous home cooks.