Horse Tacos

Horsemeat on Sale
QUÉBEC, Canada
October 28, 2012

Disclaimer: Vegetarians and squeamish eaters might want to skip this entry.

This week's circular for local supermarket chain Metro offered something I'd never seen for sale in North America: horsemeat.

That was a delicacy I indulged in every week or-so back when I lived in Urumqi. Though the minority Uyghur population didn't eat horse--the yet-smaller minority Kazakh population did. South of Nan Men Plaza were several restaurants to sate my cravings. Nestled amongst shops selling musical instruments and stalls selling pirated DVD's were several Kazakh joints offering a traditional menu. Naran was a brothy dish of short noodles served up on an immense, round platter. Polo (a.k.a. pilaf) was a dish familiar across all the cultures of the region. But it was only at the Kazkah restaurants that both dishes could be ordered either vegetarian or with slices of horsemeat. I always ordered mine carnivore-style.

Until this week I hadn't realized that horsemeat was available here in Québec, too. I happened to pick up a flyer while passing the supermarket next to my P.O. box to see what was on sale. Upon seeing 4-color newsprint advertising "Chevaline 2.49$/lb. - 5.49$/kilo.", I strode straight to the butcher shop in the back of the store to get my fix of horse. I probably would have paid well more than the advertised sale price had I been aware that horsemeat was available here before seeing that ciruclar. Is chevaline a Québecois specialty or something that's common across all of Canada?

Once in the refrigerated meat section I couldn't find pre-packaged cuts of horse anywhere despite this week's sale. I waited patiently for 20 minutes in front of the butcher counter to ask somebody for a choice cut--but nobody showed up. Finally, I asked an employee stocking the nearby seafood section if she could track down the butcher.

After being paged over the store intercom a man in a white smock--perhaps in his early twenties, perhaps not yet that old--appeared to ask me what I wanted. I ordered a kilo of the special of the week. I forgot the trick I learnt while living in Urumqi whenever ordering from a butcher: Always ask for two-thirds to three-quarters the weight of meat you really want to buy. Every butcher I've gone to--including this latest one here in Québec--has invariably asked me after slicing whether an amount about 25% in excess of what I've asked for "would be okay?".

Horsemeat in-hand I decided on-the-spot to make tacos for dinner. I already had cheese, onion, black beans, and all the necessary seasonings at home so needed just tortillias as the final ingredient. Comparison-shopping I found pita bread far cheaper so decided dinner that night was to be the ultimate improvisational fusion: Cheddar, cumin, onion, black beans, and, horsemeat wrapped up in a pita.

Grilling up just half my purchase made not only my supper that evening but brown-bag lunches for the rest of the week as well. Though the tacos tasted fine I was disappointed. It didn't taste as I remembered. My tacos didn't have the tang and bite I associate with horse. I suspected that the slacker-butcher fobbed off a kilo of ground beef on me.

In a few days I'll know for certain whether the butcher pulled a switcheroo or if horses in Québec actually taste different from horses in Xinjiang. I returned to the supermarket the last day of the sale. I bought two more kilos of chevaline to freeze up for future meals.

Trivia: The first time I ate horse was while working in Japan. Some sushi restaurants offer basashi 馬刺し, a tiny plate of raw horseflesh alongside a raw quail egg. Basashi tasted really good.