One of the unintended consequences of my little food project is that I’ve spent a lot of time face-to-face (or face-to-hoof, or face-to-pork-rind) with my food hang-ups. Every once in a while, I’m reminded of how the food culture works in Iowa, where I grew up. We were raised to believe that there are exactly three acceptable main dishes: chicken, pork, and beef. Sometimes there’s fish, which is considered a poor substitute for real meat. Everything else is considered weird and inedible, including goat, lamb, kangaroo, and the internal organs of chickens, pigs, or cows.
I’m allegedly a well-traveled guy with a reasonably adventurous palate, but sometimes I realize that I have irrational, Midwestern-esque mental blocks about certain foods. I honestly love gelatinous Korean fish skins and slimy okra, but it’s hard for me to be truly open-minded about offal, hooves, and other “non-Midwestern” meat products, despite my best efforts. Did I give the Bajan cow hooves a completely fair shot? Probably not—I nibbled at them, nodding bravely, and trying hard not to think about what I was eating. I love good chicharron now, but that took a few tries. I wasn’t completely open-minded about the kangaroo salad, either—though I ultimately thought the kangaroo meat was tastier than the lame vegetables that accompanied it.
And goat? I thought it was a skinky, gamey beast when I first tried it. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the stinky gamey taste was partly in my head; I just wasn’t psychologically ready to embrace goat until I’d eaten it a few times.
After the Nigerian meal I ate at Buka in Brooklyn, I realized that I’ve finally crossed a threshold: goat and I are totally cool now. I spent my meal lamenting that the tomato stew and okra sauce surrounding the goat lacked the interesting spice of the other dishes; I didn’t acknowledge that I was eating “non-Midwestern” meat until I got home and sat in front of the computer.
Buka, for what it’s worth, might be one of the most appealing international restaurants I’ve visited in NYC, with high ceilings and huge swaths of exposed brick. The staff is warm and casual, and there’s a full bar, so you can get your drink on. I was feeling tropical on a warm NYC afternoon, and ordered one of Buka’s specialty cocktails (“Go Slow”, $7), consisting of rum and guava juice. It didn’t occur to me that guava juice is pink. I felt un-manly. Judge if you must.
To accompany my girly drink (my dining companion, who actually is a girl, ordered a Guinness, and laughed at me for drinking pink stuff) we ordered a non-girly appetizer called moi moi ($5). The description on the menu was tantalizingly cryptic: “ground steamed honey bean cake.” We were served an unappetizing-looking spongy thing that looked like it came straight from a fifth-grader’s failed experiment with a jello mold. But damn, it was delicious: a spicy bean pudding, filled with unexpected flecks of fish, olive, and boiled egg. My texture-sensitive companion was (understandably) turned off by the “mouthfeel” of the stuff, but I loved it.
For her entrée, my wise companion ordered asaro ($10 for the standard version, a few bucks more if you want a meat topping), a fiery glob of sautéed yams, with flecks of onion, cumin, and ginger, among other seasonings. It was a simple dish, often served as the starchy base for a meat topping, but the spices were rich and delicious. I was jealous of my companion for ordering it, and kept picking at her plate whenever she looked away.
To my surprise, the somewhat exotic-sounding goat stewed in tomato with okra sauce and fufu was a dud. The goat part of it was perfectly fine: it was phenomenally tender (at least by goat standards), and wasn’t even the slightest bit gamey. But both the tomato sauce and okra were startlingly bland compared with the moi moi and asaro; the tomato and okra tasted fresh, but they were lamentably uninteresting.
After our meal, I accidentally ran across Robert Sietsema’s 2010 review of Buka in the Village Voice. I realized that we did a pretty crappy job of ordering: instead of getting the rather pedestrian goat-tomato stew, I shoulda asked for the isiewu (goat head stew, no longer on Buka’s printed menu), which apparently includes identifiable goat facial features. Sietsema’s pals pulled out bits of forehead and lips, but Sietsema himself (who, incidentally, is easily my favorite food writer anywhere) “won the prize when [he] pulled an eyeball out of the sand-colored goo.”
I’m jealous. Now that I’ve graduated from goat flesh, I think I’m ready for goat eyeballs.
946 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Subway: Clinton-Washington Aves. (A, C train)