For millennia, specific ingredients indigenous to traditional sheep-growing regions have influenced the types of dishes made using lamb, and today, popular techniques cross global frontiers for many cuts to yield eminently flavorful and satisfying dishes.
By Priscilla Martel
Lamb is among the most common livestock consumed throughout the world, linked to feasts and religious observances. Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrate with lamb, an essential part of the cuisine on Easter, Passover and Ramadan. Lamb is symbolic of spring, sacrifice, fertility and it unites people around a table of delicious food. For centuries, in humble homes, on the street and in the finest restaurants this versatile meat has been grilled, seared, braised, roasted, stewed and served everywhere. The lore and tradition that surrounds the way lamb has been served around the globe is a source of inspiration for new ways to prepare it.
Historical Background and Cultural Symbolism
As early as the Neolithic age, from 9000 BCE, lambs were being raised in many parts of the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Sheep were among the first livestock to be domesticated and used for their milk and wool as well as for their meat. Because they could thrive on pasture as well as on rocky terrain, sheep were prized animals. Early civilizations used every part of the animal—the skin for parchment, the fat or tallow for candle wax and even the rams’ horns as musical instruments.
For the ancient Greeks, sheep held a special significance. Animal sacrifices were common practice in classical times, and the first piece of lamb from the fire was offered to appease the gods, who, Greeks believed, liked the smell of sizzling meat. It was always a young and first-born lamb to be offered, that with the most delicate flavor and choice tender meat. One especially vivid passage in Homer’s The Iliad describes an offering before a feast. First the men wrapped pieces of lamb in “two layers of fat,” placed them on a wood fire and poured wine over them. While waiting for the meat to cook, the men held “five pronged spits” in their hands. And one of the greatest mythical heroes, Jason the Argonaut, must bring back the fleece from a golden lamb that has been sacrificed by his ancestor in order to reclaim his throne.
From Abraham, Moses and King David to Jesus Christ and Muhammad, many key Biblical and early religious figures were shepherds. So it is easy to understand the importance of lamb to many of these religions to this day. In the early Jewish tradition, the Passover festival described in the Book of Exodus required the slaughter of a male lamb “without blemish” to be roasted whole over a fire and eaten with unleavened bread. Today the traditional Passover Seder plate may include a lamb shank in reference to this.
The timing of Easter coincides with pagan springtime festivals, and lamb has become associated with rebirth and a fresh new season. Lamb forms the centerpiece of Easter celebrations in many Mediterranean countries. This paschal lamb evokes the lamb served at Passover. The iconography of the early Christian church is rich with lamb symbols, from the biblical references to Jesus Christ as “the lamb of God” and “shepherd to his flock” to the depiction of lamb in ecclesiastical paintings and sculptures. Lamb decorates altarpieces, stained-glass windows and carvings in Christian churches worldwide.
The most revered saint in the early church was Saint Agnes, a young Christian martyr. Her name derives from the Greek words for “chaste” and “pure,” and it also resembles the Latin word for “lamb.” Paintings and sculptures depict her holding a baby lamb. At the annual memorial of her death in the church where she is buried, two lambs are blessed, then their wool is used to make stoles that the Pope sends to newly appointed archbishops. In the Emilia Roman region of Italy, she is still celebrated with a cream-filled cake shaped like a lamb. (In fact, lamb-shaped breads and cakes are common at Easter in Italy, Sicily, northern France and other parts of Europe.)
Among followers of the Muslim faith, lamb holds great significance. By ancient custom on the festival of Eid-al-Adha (Eid ul-Adha or Kurban Bayrami in Tyrkey) or the Feast of the Sacrifice, devout Muslims sacrifice a lamb in commemoration of the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to honor the word of God by sacrificing his son. According to Christian Roy in Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, by performing this ritual, adherents are asking God for forgiveness, and they perform the act with respect for the animal’s life. As a show of thanks, the meat is customarily shared. A percentage of the meat goes to the needy. The remainder is spit-roasted or preserved for later use.
Lamb Cultural and Culinary Traditions
From these ancient festivals comes a dazzling palette of ingredients and cooking techniques that flavor the ways lamb is prepared and served.
Who thinks of Greek cuisine without imaging spit-grilled lamb or the ground-lamb pie called moussaka? Greeks have the highest per-capita consumption of lamb in the European Union. Since the time of Homer’s Odessy, lamb has formed a central theme in Greek culture and cuisines.
In her book, The Glorious Foods of Greece: Traditional Recipes from the Islands, Cities, and Villages, Greek culinary authority Diane Kochilas writes about three influences on the cuisine of Greece. One is the shepherd lifestyle, where the diet is based on wild greens, sheeps’ milk and cheese, grains and portable pies called pita. Lamb souvlaki, for example, is made from ground lamb spiced with cinnamon and pepper, grilled on a skewer, then served with pita bread and tzatziki, a bracing and tart combination of Greek yogurt, cucumber, lemon and wild herbs like mint and garlic. In the spirit of eating nose to tail, the Lenten fast in Greece is customarily broken with magiritsa, a soup made from a sheep’s head, offal and abundant green vegetables; the whole lamb is saved for roasting on Easter Sunday. After a few days of fasting, still common among Christians in Greece today, the rich broth is both ceremonial and fortifying.
Middle East and North Africa
Lamb is the principal festive dish of the Middle East according to food writer Claudia Roden, who writes that it is served at important religious festivals as well as after a birth, marriage or death. It might be a spit-roasted whole young lamb or grilled kibbeh, minced lamb, onions and grains. Serving a whole lamb is recognized as a symbol of the host’s generosity, especially in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s holiest city. When a whole roast lamb is served at a Muslim wedding there, the women will be served the meat carved from the bone, while the men will carve it themselves. Many dishes connected with the breaking of the fast at the Muslim festival of Ramadan are made from lamb, such as Syrian shakreeyeh (pieces of lamb in a yogurt and mint sauce) or the hearty Moroccan lentil and lamb stew harira.
Many visitors to Morocco or Tunisia will be fêted with mechoui, a whole roasted lamb that is a centerpiece of the regional cooking. To make this impressive dish, a lamb or sheep is baked in a deep pit oven much like an Indian tandoor. After a long, slow roasting, the lamb is served whole accompanied by coarse salt and ground cumin. Guests cluster around the feast using flatbread to grab pieces of the buttery meat for themselves. Also ubiquitous in North Africa are merguez, fiery, spiced lamb sausages. These regions shares cultural traditions with other Muslim and Mediterranean countries.
Visitors to Israel will find spit-roasted shawarma in open-air markets, where the meat is thinly shaved onto pita bread and served with tahini, pickled onions, sumac and other vegetables. Equally popular in other parts of the Middle East, lamb shwarma is made from layers of lamb seasoned then stacked horizontally on skewers and topped with a piece of fat. As the meat turns in front of the spit, the fat runs down, basting the meat.
Many observant Jews do not cook on the Sabbath. From this tradition comes an assortment of dishes that can be cooked slowly overnight and kept warm on the fire. For example, a dish popular among Jews in Syria is minced lamb and rice cooked in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Chickpeas, saffron, turmeric and red pepper may be added. Likewise among Muslims in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, ground lamb mixed with exotic spices, nuts and rice is a popular filling for stuffed vegetables and grape leaves.
Lamb figures prominently in the fragrant cooking of India, where the meat is acceptable to Hindus as well as Muslims. Indian lamb dishes may have roots in Arabic or Persian cooking and are often those served at important festivals. Haleem, for example, is a thick lamb, wheat and lentil porridge, slow cooked with bold spices and garnished generously with fresh ginger, chiles, ginger and lemon. It is associated with Ramadan and frequently served to break the fast in Muslim homes in India, Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries.
Parts of Northern India have rich lamb-cooking traditions. According to Linda Civitello in her book, Cuisine and Culture: a History of Food and People, “Every important occasion in Kashmir is celebrated with a mishani, a meal that traditionally consists of seven dishes—all of them made from lamb.” Among such dishes might be lamb meatballs, roasted leg of lamb, lamb kebabs, kidneys and roghan josh (cubed lamb simmered with chiles, cardamom, cloves, turmeric and other spices.)
Southern Mediterranean—Basque Country, Southern France and Italy
For centuries around the Mediterranean in autumn, shepherds drove their flocks from the mountains to warmer coastal plains in the south. (This seasonal movement of flocks of sheep, called the transhumance, still takes place in some areas of Italy and Spain.) Shepherding has been a cultural tradition, especially in the Basque country where spicy piquillo peppers, paprika, saffron and garlic are used liberally to flavor lamb dishes. Nothing goes to waste in this region, which contribute dishes made from lamb offal like grilled heart and tongue. Many Basque immigrants came to California during the Gold Rush years and later worked in shepherding. Today, descendants of these Basque families continue to be prominent in the American lamb industry.
The Paschal lamb remains a firm tradition in Italy, where whole roasted lamb on a spit is a prized way to celebrate Easter. The tradition continues into Easter Monday, which has evolved its own repertoire of dishes such as verdetto, lamb stewed with peas or fresh greens, cardoons and whatever is in season thickened with eggs and grated cheese. The Roman specialty is lamb stewed with red wine and anchovies, which brings umami flavor to the tender meat. Seasoning lamb with anchovies has spread to other countries in the region, as well.
Finding Culinary Inspiration in the Traditions of Lamb Cookery
Specific ingredients indigenous to traditional sheep-growing regions have influenced the types of dishes made using lamb. There was a time when only mature sheep were consumed, those with a pronounced flavor that required a heavy hand with the seasoning. This is no longer the case in the United States, where most all lamb sold into the market comes from sheep less than one year of age. The American-raised sheep are bred specifically for the table and not for their wool. Yet today we still recognize how delicious these time-tested flavor principles are when cooking with lamb.
Popular techniques cross global frontiers for many cuts of lamb. Among them is barding the leg with aromatics and flavorings. A bone-in or boneless leg of lamb can be used. Long marinating is another time-tested technique to infuse lamb muscle meats with flavor and help tenderize them during cooking. Lamb shanks and shoulder cuts lend themselves to being marinated in yogurt, white or red wine, stock and seasonings for as long as 24 hours before slow cooking.
Some of the successful ways to flavor lamb come from these rich traditions such as:
Season lamb with bright and acidic flavors.
- Marinate cubed pieces of lamb shoulder in wine before stewing as for the “drunken” lamb from Catalonia.
- Prepare a rich lamb broth from lamb neck, shank and bones and season it heavily with lemon juice for the Greek avgolemono, or egg-lemon soup.
- Rub lamb shoulder chops or cutlets with North African chermoula—a mixture of fresh coriander leaves, saffron and onions—before grilling.
- Use orange rind and such sweet spices as coriander, cinnamon and fennel when making a Sardinian-style lamb-shoulder stew.
Pair lamb with the sweet fruit flavors of apricots, figs and raisins.
- Moroccan lamb tagines often call for cubed lamb shoulder slowly simmered with dried apricots, quince, raisins, prunes, pumpkin and spices.
- Stuff lamb breast with ground dried fruit, nuts and rice before braising.
- Glaze lamb rib or lamb chops with pomegranate juice and oil during grilling.
Use such strong aromatic herbs as mint, rosemary and thyme to balance the flavors in rich cuts of lamb.
- Slow-cook a whole lamb shoulder or large pieces of the meat with many whole cloves of garlic, white wine and rosemary for a rustic Italian mountain supper.
- Prepare Turkish kofta (also referred to as kafta, kofte and kefte) using ground lamb seasoned with onions, mint and fresh coriander.
Use warm aromatic spices in grilled and roasted lamb.
- Combine cumin, paprika and salt to season a leg or lamb sirloin roasting in the style of a Moroccan mechoui.
- In Spain and Portugal, smoky paprika and local olive oil flavor all cuts of lamb, whether for grilling or roasting.
- Grilled Basque lamb sausages are made from ground lamb shoulder, some fatty pork belly and spices such as caraway, cumin and fennel seeds, dried chiles and sweet, smoked paprika.
Recipe Links from www.americanlamb.com
Skewered Spiced Lamb Kafta (pictured)
Priscilla Martel operates All About Food, which holds several baking patents and collaborates with food manufacturers and restaurants to create innovative products, menus and marketing programs. She is the co-author of On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals and On Baking: A Textbook for Baking and Pastry Fundamentals.