It Just Won’t Fly

I remember reading about an ostrich burger that a Lahore based restaurant introduced a couple of years back. The hype, the exoticism, the ‘health benefits’ and the mass scale breeding; the possibility that we would forgo turkey and move straight to ostrich as an alternative to traditional beef patties seemed like a real possibility. Ostrich farms were set up and the people running them were already counting the money. People who hadn’t even heard of the bird were expected to consume it at a rapidly increasing pace. Sure, everyone counted their chicks before they hatched, but what the f*** really happened?

Yes, ostrich has lower cholesterol levels and fat content compared to pretty much any other meat you can imagine; heck it even has half the calories. Yes, they breed easy, require lower maintenance than average cattle, and the females lay eggs for up to forty years! It’s also a great source of iron, potassium, creatinine and phosphorous. Then why in the world aren’t we eating it?

The first time I had ostrich was in South Africa. It was at a Zulu buffet, complete with warthog ribs, alligator meatballs, something like giraffe lollipops and ostrich kebabs. I was too young to distinctly recall every component of the ostrich kebab, but was old enough to remember by distaste to this day. A more recent encounter with this so-called bird  happened about a year ago at Lahore’s very own Khalis Market, with ostrich kebabs and burgers on the menu. I’d like to think that my tastebuds had developed since my first encounter in South Africa, yet I was not impressed. The meat was chewy and the gamey taste was overwhelming- I feel like it would take a michelin star chef to marinate the meat.

Now I’ve yet to see an ostrich steak or standalone ostrich-based ingredient worthy of being mentioned in this post. Sure, people must eat ostrich steaks somewhere in the world, but I’m sure some people eat chicken carpaccio somewhere in the world- you don’t see me reviewing that now, do you? So I’ll be talking about burgers in specific. After all, that’s the primary product that the Pakistani ostrich industry aimed to compete with.

Globally, the closest competitor to the beef burger is a chicken ‘burger’, if you could call it a burger (a debate for another time). Whether it’s minced and charbroiled chicken, grilled fillets or Zinger-style breaded and deep fried thighs- the red meat-averse have an option. Further expanding on the alternative feels was the vegan/vegetarian burger, made with beans, soy and all kinds of plant-based ingredients that make me question my sanity. A leaner alternative is turkey; further variants that have ‘made it’ in the market are bison, venison, lamb, wild boar, elk and duck.

Now what’s the most essential thing about a burger? For me, and every other consumer I’m aware of, it’s the taste. If you beg to differ, get the f*** out. If a burger was about the it’s health benefits, it’d be called a salad. A burger is indulgence, a burger starts with a massive “f*** it, I’m eating a burger.” So taste IS key, how could it not be?

Ostrich by the nature of its activity and muscle functions, has a strong and gamey flavor. What’s more, it’s tough and has none of the fat to make it juicy for a patty. If I wanted a gamey burger, I’d go for venison, bison or lamb burger, in that order. If I wanted a juicy burger in the traditional sense, I would go for a beef patty- maybe even wagyu beef if I was feeling particularly suave. If I wanted to binge on junk found and satisfy my fried food cravings, I’d opt for a marinated, breaded and deep fried chicken burger. There is no fourth burger for me- even if there were, it would have been duck with a fried egg on top of it. Um, I guess I lied: there is a fourth burger in my book. But duck is much more flavorful without being dominating anyway. And herein lies the problem.

Ostrich guns for a market that is already saturated. It does not fulfill the requirements of any consumer I can imagine, based on the categories of burgers I have mentioned above. By itself, it does not go well with most things. Unlike chicken, perfected over centuries to adapt to any given ingredients in a meal, ostrich meat sticks out like a sore thumb. I wouldn’t be caught dead replacing any other meat with it, though that’s merely my personal opinion.

No offense, ostrich, but you’re not that good looking either; you’re bald, overbearing and kind of big for a bird to be quite frank. I hate to break it to you, but there are already three birds (chicken, duck, turkey) I’d rather eat before I eat you. And that’s just me. People in Pakistan don’t even want to go further than chicken in their quest for a burger. And that’s that. Boom.

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