written by Dominic Rolfe
It began with a bag of bloody red meat thudding onto the Bayswater Brasserie’s kitchen bench back in 1995. Jared Ingersoll, the restaurant’s head chef had eaten kangaroo before – “it was a cracking meat,” he recalls – but he couldn’t figure out why most Australians seemed so squeamish about it. “I’d mention kangaroo to people and they’d have this physical twitch,” he says. It seemed to him that nobody apart from the Indigenous population and the Chinese ate kangaroo. He was determined to see how it would play out on a menu.
The first warning signs didn’t come from the diners or his team of chefs. They came from the bloke delivering the meat. “It wasn’t a secret,” says Ingersoll, “The suppliers said it was nice but there are problems of consistency.” Despite the cautionary advice, the first piece of kangaroo meat he cooked from that bag was a triumph. He put it on the menu, marinated in garlic and thyme. “Then we started sending it out,” he says, “The first piece was tough and terrible and from then on we got nothing but complaints.”
Twenty years on, Ingersoll, is standing over another slab of kangaroo on a bench. This time the suppliers – Paroo Premium Kangaroo – are far from dubious. They’re excited. As is Ingersoll. They’re cooking up four species of kangaroo to show just how far the meat has come. “Back then, no one really cared about kangaroo meat because there wasn’t any money in it,” says Ingersoll, “and it was a pain in the backside for abattoirs. But the lightbulb moment for me was going on a shoot with Paroo, following the process and seeing the level of care and the intense level of scrutiny and transparency in their processes. In all my years as a chef, I’ve not seen anything like it.”
Paroo is the high end range of kangaroo from Macro Meats, and is the only premium grade kangaroo meat in Australia. Last year it won the Delicious. Produce Award for Outstanding Innovation. Over the past five years, Ray Borda from Paroo has seen the amount of kangaroo meat sold increase by around 400%, though off a small base and Macro Meats sells kangaroo in over 3200 supermarkets across Australia. Josh Evans from Nordic Food Lab) has been on a Paroo shoot as has Ingersoll and Attica chef, Ben Shewry, among others. ARIA recently put it on their menu for the first time and Curtis Stone rang to say he wants it in his US restaurants.
But at the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence masterclass, it’s not the increase in numbers and restaurant attention that has the assembled chefs and service staff talking. It’s the remarkable taste difference in the four species (see image below) and the explanation for why kangaroo meat has been so inconsistent. “In the past, you never knew what species of kangaroo you were getting, how old they were, what gender and the conditions they were harvested in,” says Borda. “with Paroo, we only take specific species from selected areas, they have to be between 1700-2000 days old and only males. They’re bled and hung properly and never taken from drought conditions. It took us years of research to get the consistency but we needed that if we were ever going to be serious about delivering the best meat possible.”
Choosing the species was a result of looking at their unique flavour profiles. The meat of the red kangaroo is juicier, more succulent and less gamey than the eastern or western grey kangaroos, which also have a more intense, fragrant and mineral flavours. Borda explains that it’s due to their different eating and social habits. Red kangaroos have a higher moisture content because they eat more young green grass and they’re the most nomadic – they’ll search out water. The greys by contrast are more territorial and prefer the bush vegetation.
As a result, the reds are favoured locally while the greys skew strongly to the export market. “I do talks all over the place,” says Borda, “and when I tell people about the differences in the species they look at me and say, ‘Of course, why didn’t I ever think that matters?’ It’s like someone switching the light on.”
Of course, Paroo isn’t the first to understand the premium nature of some of the 58 kangaroo species, the red kangaroo in particular. “We engage a lot with our indigenous friends and we learn off them,”says Borda, “they like the tail of the red roo and the size they prefer is the size of the Paroo roo. They’re hell fussy about red roo tail, you can’t put one over them!”
The Indigenous people Paroo spoke to also reinforced the decision to only take males. “The old fashioned way was to shoot them all,”says Borda, “the males and females Its not ethical. The final crunch came when the Indigenous people told us that they don’t believe you should kill an animal unless you’re willing to consume it.”
For Ingersoll, it all means that he can use kangaroo without feeling skittish every time he serves it. “The only thing that controls my menus is the product,” he says. “If you’re getting four kilos of say back strap and some is good and some is bad, you don’t use it. With Paroo, it allows you to explore the product and push it a bit further.”
These days you don’t have to look far to find restaurants serving tartare kangaroo, sliders with pulled kangaroo shoulder and Ingersoll has been taste testing slow-cooked kangaroo ribs. It’s casting aside the traditional notion that kangaroo can only be served rare. “I’ve mucked around braising forequarters and ribs,” he says, “and even though it’s incredibly lean, it still has that connective tissue and the collagens and you can get the sticky, rich reductions that people resonate with.”
Ingersoll, who’s really excited about working with Kangaroo in his next project “Butcher and the Farmer” opening in the Rozelle tram sheds towards the end of the year. He believes that seeing kangaroo on a menu is becoming less and less unusual. “We’re starting to break through with it,” he says, admitting the challenge is “selling a kilo of wild, beautiful game kangaroo mince when you’re competing against a kilo of other animal mince that has been factory farmed.”
But the chef has been in the vanguard of change before and sees parallels with a shift to eating more kangaroo. “The more often it’s used and talked about the more it becomes normal,” he says, “In 2002, I started to using the words, ‘local, sustainable, seasonal’ on the menu and everyone though I was a freak hippie chef pushing agendas around but you keep using that language and after a while other people start talking about it and they begin to expect to see it on the menu. It’s the same for kangaroo – it’s all about education.”