Kangaroo meets the dinner table

ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) – My father likes to say he was one of the first people to taste curried kangaroo, a dish he cooked up with his South Asian housemates while stretching pennies during graduate school in the 1960’s.

Back then, kangaroo was sold mostly as dog food, making it an odd, but cheap eat for students. These days, the lean red meat _ curried or otherwise _ is ubiquitous, appearing as steaks, sausages and meat pies at grocers and fine restaurants here nationwide.

“It used to be a bizarre thing served up (at huge cost) to tourists,” said Rachel McNamara, a lawyer and mother from Sydney. “Now Safeway stocks kangaroo sausages and patties as an everyday item.”

There are an estimated 50 million kangaroos of a variety of shapes and sizes hopping around Australia. Aboriginals always have eaten the mild-mannered marsupials, but most of the country’s European settlers have been slow to call them dinner. The meat tastes a bit like beef and venison, but with a softer texture.

The kangaroo _ a creature no other country can claim _ is a much-loved symbol of quirky Australia, as well-known as the Sydney Opera House. To children, probably more so. It graces endless tourist fodder, as well as Australia’s coat of arms and the cover of its passport.

This might partly explain why kangaroo meat just hasn’t been a big part of the Australian diet. Many farmers who culled the animals to keep them from competing with livestock have long eaten ‘roo, but it otherwise was considered a food of the poor.

To this day, nobody farms kangaroos; they are so plentiful the government has been culling them to prevent them from damaging rangeland, crops and fences, and from competing with stock for drinking water. That’s the meat that’s ending up on the table.

But as interest in eating locally produced foods gains popularity in Australia, ‘roo meat is moving out of the bush and onto the menus and grocers’ shelves of the wealthier cities and suburbs, too.

The selling of kangaroo for human consumption has been legal in South Australia (where Adelaide is located) since 1980, and for the rest of the country only since 1993. Since then, the eating of kangaroo has grown considerably, fueled in part by tourism. Exports have grown, too, going from almost nothing in 1989 to $20 million in 2001, according to a report commissioned by the federal government.

Even the nation’s food magazines have caught on, showcasing recipes for ‘roo lasagna or ‘roo stew.

Despite its growing popularity, ‘roo meat still is cheaper than beef _ about $1.50 a pound for mince and $4 a pound