“There are hundreds of thousands of kangaroos, so why wouldn’t we eat it?” says chef Jock Zonfrillo. Kangaroo is a regular on his Adelaide restaurant menus - think charred kangaroo with beetroot, grasses and wild garlic at fine diner Orana, and kangaroo hot dogs with fried jalapeños and chipotle mayo at bar food joint, Street ADL.
Chefs won’t leave something on the menu unless it sells, but inside Australian homes there’s been some reluctance to embrace roo. But that might be changing – roo sausage roll, anyone?
Give your sausage rolls a bit of a 'gourmet' treatment by pairing kangaroo mince with salsa verde. Encased in shortcrust pastry, these meaty parcels are wonderfully moist and more-ish. The salsa is one for your repertoire, too. If you're not in the mood for sausage rolls, serve the herb and caper mixture atop chargrilled meat, roasted potatoes or a simple salad.
These days, kangaroo fillets, mince and kebabs can be found in supermarkets and butchers across Australia. It’s the sort of purchase a meat-eating shopper can feel contented with. It’s a versatile wild product, similar in flavour to other game meats. It’s super lean, boasting just one to two per cent fat, plus high levels of iron and B vitamins. Moreover, it’s an abundant protein source, with millions of kangaroos thriving Down Under.
Despite these assets, a 2008 consumer survey revealed only 4.7 per cent of respondents ate kangaroo once a month or more (the option with the highest frequency) while beef, chicken, lamb and pork remained most popular for home cooks. Some participants also indicated uncertainty on how to cook kangaroo, the incorrect belief that kangaroos were farmed rather than wild, or animal welfare concerns.
Zonfrillo, who describes kangaroo as “a beautiful meat” suggests another reason. “There’s a lot of ‘I’m not eating the emblem’,” he says. From its feature on the national coat of arms to tourism campaigns, it’s no surprise many Aussies feel affection for kangaroos. Indeed, a 2014 study by University of Wollongong researchers showed this was a key reason for some to feel iffy about eating kangaroo.
The kangaroo meat industry formally began in the 1970s. With the kangaroo long viewed as a pest in farming areas and regularly culled, the government laid an official framework to transform the carcasses into leather goods and food – both for people and pets.
It’s mainly the Red, Eastern Grey, and Western Grey kangaroos that are harvested by licensed shooters – under a national code of practice that states the animals must be taken humanely with a direct shot to the head – with the system based on an annual quota set using scientific research. “The population ecology of the harvested species of kangaroo is well studied. Quotas are set at rates that accommodate the known rates of increase in population,” says Professor Gordon Grigg of the University of Queensland, whose studies have focused on kangaroo population patterns and the sustainable use of kangaroos.
The quotas are implemented by each state where harvesting takes place in ways designed to manage flourishing kangaroo populations in a sustainable way, with an eye to the welfare of both the environment and kangaroo populations.
Grigg adds that more readily available pasture and water sources as a result of pastoralism since colonisation have allowed kangaroo numbers to swell. As too many kangaroos can cause damage to native habitats, the practice of harvesting satisfies conservation goals. Meanwhile, Australia’s drought-prone climate creates a boom-and-bust scenario for kangaroos, which harvesting can help to ease. “As drought-good times cycles roll on, [there’s] the death of many roos through starvation when a drought follows a few years of good times. Nobody wants to see that,” says Grigg.
Around 15 to 20 per cent of the total population of kangaroos can be legally harvested each year, but this is rarely taken in full. “The quotas are actually seldom reached because of the comparatively low values of [kangaroo] meat and leather in relation to the cost of harvesting,” says Grigg.
The most recent industry research, published in 2005, found that roughly 60 to 70 per cent of kangaroo meat was destined for pet food, while 70 per cent of the remaining meat for human consumption was exported overseas. However, Ray Borda, managing director of Macro Meats, which supplies retailers and restaurants across Australia with kangaroo, says those figures are on the move. “The consumption and interest in kangaroo is probably at its highest level right now,” he says, adding that people aged 18 to 34 are more likely to go for kangaroo than those over 55.
Demand is growing, agrees John Kelly, executive officer of the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia. “Now we are probably closer to 80 per cent of all industry throughput being human consumption meat,” he says, based on internal industry estimations. “Australians eat more kangaroo than duck and a lot more kangaroo than venison… so within the niche meat industries, we’re not doing too badly.”
“In the Spanish bullfighting town of Cordoba, this dish would traditionally use bull’s tail. Whether you agree with bullfighting or not, this braise is great because it uses parts of the animal that would otherwise go to waste. In Australia however, it makes sense to use kangaroo but you will probably need to order the tails ahead of time from your butcher, or you can use oxtail instead.” Shane Delia, Shane Delia’s Moorish Spice Journey
Borda adds the main motivation for people to eat kangaroo is its healthy nutritional profile, followed by its flavour, and environmental concerns. This last point was highlighted after the 2008 government-commissioned Garnaut Climate Change Review recommended, in order to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions-driven climate change, that Australians eat more low-methane kangaroo and transition away from resource-intensive sheep and cattle farming.
As mentioned in this review, 82.6 per cent of Australia’s emissions from agriculture are caused by the production of beef, sheep and grain combined, while livestock’s, shall we say, digestive discharges, are a major contributor to Australia’s overall emissions.
For Zonfrillo, a major reason why some people might be hesitant to cook kangaroo at home is the variation across cuts. “Because it’s a wild kill, they’re not processed in the same manner as a cow or sheep,” he says in terms of the meat’s size and form. The kangaroo’s age, breed and region also impact its flavour and texture, down to whether it was eating salty greens or fresh grass. “There’s no consistency, so when a consumer goes to the supermarket, they’re going to get a mixed bag.”
Borda has been tackling this with the launch of Paroo, a Macro Meats premium brand that only sells meat from male Red kangaroos from four distinct regions, in an effort to ensure provenance and reduce irregularities. “You used to go to a restaurant and order a rump steak. Now it’s a Coonawarra steak, or 21-day aged steak, or grass-fed steak. Why shouldn’t we do the same?” says Borda.
Eating kangaroo is certainly not new. Indigenous Australians have had a lengthy and deep engagement with kangaroos on cultural and culinary levels, with kangaroo playing an important role in spiritual beliefs as well as being a crucial source of protein. After colonisation, kangaroo also made regular appearances in colonials’ meals, but quickly fell out of favour once European livestock became commonplace. The attitude towards kangaroos as nuisances has remained strong thereafter, until recently.
“The only real negative is perception and tradition,” says Borda. “People will try kangaroo in their own time.” For those who are keen to cook up some kangaroo, Borda’s favourite roo dish is a simple grilled fillet number. “I like it thinly sliced, marinated in olive oil to give it a bit of moisture, with some pepper, salt and garlic,” he says. “Cook it for two minutes, and you’ve got a beautiful piece of meat that’s tender as.”
Cooking with kangaroo
Photography by Matthew Turner (Jock Zonfrillo) and Gourmet Game (recipes).