Camels. Kangaroos. Alligators. Rattlesnakes. When one thinks of animals such as these, they would surely expect to encounter them in cages at a zoo rather than on a dining plate. Yet amongst a growing number of Los Angeles based restaurants, exotics have become the choice ingredients with which to work with.
Once regarded as simply a novelty item or relegated to specific, regional types of cuisine, exotic ingredients such as emu, antelope, kangaroo, alligator, rattlesnake and camel have become all the rage amongst chefs and consumers alike and can be found anywhere from food trucks to fine dining establishments citywide.
Why Have Exotics Taken So Long to Catch On?
Perhaps the largest obstacle formerly facing exotics was unfamiliarity. Many chefs were wary of working with such expensive ingredients without a customer demand for them and consumers were often afraid of trying such unusual dishes, opting to order a fish on the brink of extinction over a kangaroo steak.
Los Angeles based chef Robert “Bean” Castaneda of the popular Living Breathing Kitchen pop up has worked with exotic ingredients for years but notes that before the recent exotics craze, serving such dishes proved to be a hard sell.
“Gamy flavors turn off consumers,” said Castaneda. “But if done right, exotics can be amazing.”
And with exotics, preparation is key.
“Chefs today just don’t know the best way to prepare [exotics]” said Chef Castaneda. “For example, many chefs don’t realize that to prepare frog, it’s actually a three day process. As frogs generally give off swampy flavors, the meat must first sit for a day in water and a day in milk to extract the off putting flavors. Same goes for alligator.”
For Castaneda’s own camel picadillo dish, sourced from the camel’s mid-waist and hump, he describes how he first must grind the meat three times, confit it, and then add a number of spices to extract the gaminess.
But while exotics may take a bit of extra effort on the part of the chef, when prepared correctly, the dishes can be truly outstanding.
While in the past there was much more resistance from consumers to trying these dishes, amongst the next generation of more experimental diners, exotics have become a big draw. For these millennials who have already had every cut of pork prepared 200+ ways, exotics represent a new culinary frontier to discover. So to satisfy these millennial foodies constantly looking for new and undiscovered dining options, more and more restaurants have begun incorporating exotic dishes into their culinary repertoire.
Yet exotics today are much more than simply a novelty factor and the exotic dishes being prepared at some of Los Angeles’ top dining establishments are not just obscure for the sake of obscurity but are classic dishes in their own right.
Benefits of Working With Exotics
With possible proteins ranging from antelope to zebra, the use of exotics offers both chefs and consumers a wide variety of unfamiliar flavors and textures to experience. For consumers, the chance to try exotic dishes pushes them outside their comfort zone and provides them with an opportunity to try something new and unexpected. For chefs, working with exotics is a new culinary frontier to tackle, offering the chance to further expand their skills by experimenting with ingredients unfamiliar to most.
"The best part of working with exotic meat is there isn't much to compare it with. You can pretty much do anything with an exotic piece of meat, and it's original," says LA based chef Jean Paul Peluffo of the Fair Game food truck. "When you make a hamburger or fried chicken, so many other chefs have already done it so it's easy to compare recipes. With exotic meat the sky is the limit and with Fair Game we are looking over the rainbow already."
Because of chefs like Peluffo and Castaneda paving the way, more chefs are starting to see the value of working with these ingredients and exotic dishes are starting to appear on more and more menus.
Los Angeles’ beerhall Wurstkuche is best known for serving German-style bratwurst alongside a wide selection of German and Belgian beers. Yet along their traditional pork and chicken options, the restaurant also serves a number of exotic offerings such as rattlesnake, alligator and pheasant sausages. Further north in the Santa Ynez Valley, local favorite Industrial Eats serves a number of dishes with game and exotic proteins such as their antelope and wild boar flatbreads.
Not So Foreign After All
Through working with exotics, chefs have been able to discern similarities amongst ingredients formerly unfamiliar. For example, many chefs soon discovered that camel meat was extremely similar to bison and ostrich in that the meat is lean and not very greasy. Kangaroo, on the other hand is more solid, similar to a denser version of a filet mignon, although the meat is not as soft.
So while many of these exotic proteins seem very foreign, in essence they are not so very different from other meats.
“Every animal is essentially the same – it doesn’t matter what it is” says Castaneda. “I’ve even eaten dog. It was delicious.”
Of similar mind, fellow exotic enthusiast Chef Peluffo says for him, no ingredient is off limits. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t cook,” said Peluffo. “I can cook anything in any way because I have no fear of mixing flavors and ingredients.”
Peluffo’s truck, which began hitting the streets only several months ago, has already become a new favorite amongst Angelenos for serving a wide variety of exotic dishes including kangaroo sausage and alligator tacos. Earlier this month, Peluffo teamed up with fellow LA chef Castaneda for a twelve-course wild game and exotics inspired pop up dinner featuring a number of each of the chef’s classic exotic dishes. Serving dishes ranging from wild boar taquitos to lobster pancakes to camel picadillo, the multi-course dinner was an instant success and the duo already plans to host a second iteration of the event early next month.
Yet while the exotics trend has surely taken off in Los Angeles, that’s not to say there still isn’t resistance and many today still have mental hang ups over eating exotics.
“Someone, somewhere has decided which animals are ok to eat,” said Castaneda.
So while these misunderstandings continue, today’s chefs continue working to actively increase the public’s awareness of the enticing qualities exotics can add to a meal and attempt to convince diners that there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored…and eaten.