The distinction between lamb, sheep, and goat is lost in translation on Taiwan’s bilingual menus, blurring the lines for customers and business owners alike.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY STEVEN CROOK AND KATY HUI-WEN HUNG
In Taiwan, not all yangrou (羊肉) restaurants make it obvious if they are serving lamb, the meat of mature sheep, or goat meat.
The Chinese term – influenced by South Asian and Caribbean culinary terminology – can be applied to any ovine flesh, in which “mutton” often denotes meat from a goat. Some bilingual menus in Taiwan translate shanyangrou (山羊肉) as mutton rather than, more accurately, goat meat. In this article, we use the term mutton exclusively to refer to meat from older sheep.
Despite the per capita consumption of all types of meat rising by over one-third between 1980 and 2020, the average Taiwanese still consumes less than 1 kilogram of yangrou each year, compared to 43kg of poultry, 35kg of pork, and just over 7kg of beef. Under the yangrou umbrella term, the ratio of sheep-meat consumption to goat-meat consumption is approximately 3:2.
Few locals cook goat meat at home, and getting fresh Taiwanese goat takes work. While researching this article, we found only one butcher selling domestic caprine (anything related to or characteristic of a goat): a stall at Shanhua Cattle Market (善化牛墟), which operates for nine days each month, serving farmers in the southern area of Tainan.
However, the habit of eating ovine (anything related to or characteristic of a sheep) meat has spread beyond its strongholds in the southern half of the island. More Joy Young (莫宰羊), a hotpot restaurant that opened in 1992 by three brothers and now operates at three locations in Taipei, prides itself on innovating a distinctive “North Taiwan yangrou cuisine.”
On the TTV food show Extraordinary Exploration (非凡大探索), co-owner Lai Chia-ching explains that since northerners are not fond of dark-colored soups, he and his brothers devised a clear broth. The restaurant also serves dishes constructed around collagen-rich ovine skin because local consumers adore its “Q” (chewy) texture and seek it out for its health benefits.
During a recent visit with friends to the branch near Daan Forest Park, we all agreed that the dishes – which included Clear-Broth Goat Hotpot (清燉羊肉爐), Goat Tripe Salad (涼拌羊肚), and Braised Goat Tendon (滷羊腱肉) – were excellent, yet the meat tasted more like beef than goat. Turns out the similarities in flavor have a historical explanation.
“Many early cookbooks reveal that when the Han Chinese started cooking beef in the early 20th century, they borrowed tricks used for preparing mutton, in particular for reducing the gamey factor of the meat,” says Miranda Brown, Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker collegiate professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, who specializes in culinary and medicinal recipes.
Han people have been eating both goat and sheep since ancient times. “Until the Ming dynasty, sheep and goat meat were prestige foods at banquets, even in the south, and even though the Chinese associated sheep – and their distinctly gamey stench – with their nomadic enemies,” says Brown. “Until the late 19th century, the Chinese in Hangzhou ate sheep offal, and mutton remains an important food in China’s northwest and among Chinese Muslims.”
Whereas certain people are attracted to yangrou by its gamey quality, many Taiwanese seem more than happy to go without the strong flavor and aroma traditionally associated with ovine meat. Those interested in cooking mutton at home but keen to avoid any xingsao wei (腥臊味, unappetizing odor) can find plenty of advice online. Adding dried orange peel, hawthorn, or mung beans to a stew is said to be effective at reducing the meat’s distinctive whiff.
From mountains to markets
Before goat and mutton hotpots began to catch on in the 1960s, the handful of eateries in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan District that specialized in goat tended to serve it in soups or sliced and fried. Chefs used basil, medicinal herbs, rice wine, shacha sauce (沙茶酱), and the town’s famous spicy bean paste to suppress the odor of the meat.
Gangshan’s place on Taiwan’s culinary map is a consequence of its location. The hilly mudstone landscape that characterizes much of its hinterland – especially Dagangshan, Tianliao, and Yanchao – is unsuitable for most forms of agriculture but ideal for raising goats. According to the Ministry of Culture’s online Encyclopedia of Taiwan, “Gangshan developed as a place where goats are sold, and goat meat is traded because it stands at the intersection” of those places.
The town may have been the main goat-trading center long ago, but for the past two decades, the principal auction site for goats has been the Changhua County Meat Market in Xihu. Auctions are held twice weekly during the fall and winter, and weekly at other times of the year. Up to 500 animals are sold during each session, with restaurateurs from all over Taiwan competing to buy the finest specimens.
Xihu’s many goat-meat eateries are major buyers, and according to a 2021 article on The News Lens website, those that promise their customers 100% Taiwanese goat keep a careful eye on each other. Business competitors don’t hesitate to report anyone who passes off imported meat – often over 30% cheaper – as domestic. Some yangrou aficionados say that meat that has been machine-sliced rather than cut unevenly by hand is very likely imported.
With fewer sources and stiffer competition over the island’s supply, restaurants like More Joy Young do not source from domestic farms. Instead, Lai says, its caprine meat comes from Australia and New Zealand. He and his brothers are confident in those countries’ animal husbandry practices.
According to 2018-2022 data from New Zealand’s Meat Industry Association, the country’s frozen or chilled goat exports to Taiwan had not exceeded 40.3 metric tons in a year. Goat imports from Australia generally come in the form of skin-on carcasses because there is a strong demand for collagen-boosting dishes like Goat Skin Soup (帶皮羊肉湯).
Ovine hotpot broth typically includes angelica root, black cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, dried tangerine peel, five-spice powder, ginger, Szechuan peppercorn, star anise, and Szechuan lovage. Except for angelica root, this list is similar to that of ingredients used to prepare the sauce in which lu wei (滷味) items are braised.
In contrast to the volume of goat meat imports, annual lamb and mutton shipments from New Zealand averaged around 9,000 metric tons during the 2018-2022 period. Domestic sheep meat is unobtainable because Taiwan’s pasturelands are either too hot or too cold for the wooly creatures to thrive, with the famous exception of Qingjing Farm in Taichung. Yaa Fang International Enterprise Co. is one of several local food-processing companies that package imported frozen meat with the various herbal and medicinal ingredients needed to make Taiwanese-style mutton hotpot (羊肉爐, yangrou lu).
For those looking to explore new goat dishes, Joes Mutton Diner (舊市羊肉) is an excellent option. Located in Gangshan, this Bib Gourmand Michelin-rated restaurant serves meat from goats slaughtered on the same day, demonstrating that there’s more to Taiwanese yangrou cuisine than just hotpot.
At Joes, one affordable option for solo diners is Shacha Fried Goat Meat (沙茶羊肉) with noodles, rice vermicelli, or rice. Fried Goat’s Brain with Sesame Oil (麻油羊腦), Fried Goat’s Testicles with Sesame Oil (麻油羊睪丸), and Goat Liver Soup (羊肝湯) are among the 45 non-hotpot options listed on the restaurant’s menu. Goat Meat with Bitter Melon (苦瓜羊肉) is sold in almost every goat eatery. When done well, neither of the main ingredients overpowers the other.
The ovine warming effect
Compendium of Materia Medica (本草綱目), the 16th-century encyclopedia of Chinese medicine and herbology, claims that mutton can nourish the liver, invigorate the stomach, tone up the lungs, and ease the symptoms of asthma. Within the traditional Chinese division of foods into those believed to have cooling properties, those that warm and enhance circulation, and those that are balanced or neutral, the meat of lambs, sheep, and goats is considered “warming.”
It is unsurprising that yangrou eateries tend to be busiest during wintertime, with Taiwanese-style mutton hotpot being the most popular dish at several establishments in both Gangshan and Xihu, which have acquired an island-wide reputation for ovine cuisine.
Seasonal price swings can be huge, and the custom of eating ovine meat only in the cooler months “has seriously limited the development of the goat-farming industry,” according to Chinese-language website News&Market. To boost demand during the slow season, some restaurants now offer “summer tonic” (夏補, xia bu) dishes such as Goat-Meat Salad (羊肉沙拉).
“This [winter] price surge makes consumers think that domestic goat meat is very expensive while making farmers’ incomes so unstable that some people opt to cut their losses and quit,” writes News&Market. “It is also difficult for farmers who stay in the industry to accumulate the capital they need to upgrade their operations.”
Consolidation and expansion are complicated, even when financing is available. In much of Taiwan, regulations forbid the establishment of livestock farms within 500 meters of schools and homes, causing one farmer to tell the website that many goat farm owners find themselves “in a quagmire from which it’s difficult to move forward.”