Ark of Taste
The Karakul breed originated in Central Asia, and its name comes from the village of Kara Kul (or Black Lake), which lies in the Bokhara region between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan near the Caspian and Black Seas.
Karakuls were historically used for the production of meat, fat, wool, and pelts. Of most value were the pelts of lambs, called Persian lambskins or astrakhan, which were used to make a variety of warm, soft, and elegant garments.
Above from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
The Karakul holds a unique place in American culinary history as having been the only true fat-tailed breed in the United States. Fat-tailed breeds are common in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and as such Karakul meat has been a literal taste of home for generations of immigrants and their children in the United States. The tail of the sheep is used in many Middle Eastern dishes. The fat is rendered into tallow, called “rowghan” in Farsi or “allyah” in Arabic, which is then used much as tallow once was in American cooking: to add juiciness and flavor to grilled meat, to grease cookware, or to add the mild flavor to a dish. Sheep with fat tails accumulate fat deposits in a different manner than other sheep, which is why in taste tests conducted in the United States with immigrants from Asia, Africa, and even Latin America (where fat tails are not common), the Karakul consistently scored higher on juiciness than the other breeds tested (Griffin et al., 1992).
Karakul also has a milder flavor profile than European-descended breeds of sheep, which has enamored it to many people averse to more “muttony” flavors.
“There are many dishes Karakul works well for, but Iʼll limit it to three here. First, there is no sheep better for kabob than the sheep breed with which kabob was first made. Kabobs are a Middle Eastern dish from the same regions that first developed Karakuls, and the flavor profile of the Karakul is perfect for this style of cooking. Many immigrant nationalities and families have their own recipes, but Iʼll describe one that is near universal: skewered kabob. First, cubed Karakul meat (often from the sirloin or loin) is put on skewers with various vegetables such as peppers and onions. Seasonings are added, and then the tallow from the sheepʼs tail is melted over the meat as it grills. Often, the person grilling it will fan the charcoals to impart a smokey, earthy flavor. I grew up eating this dish, for which my father went out and specially bought Karakul lamb.”
— Shaya Ghajar, nominator to the Ark of Taste
Finally, the Karakul is also prized by celebrants of the Easter holiday, as its fat tail makes it very similar to the fat-tailed breeds mentioned in the Bible. Many people enjoy the shank or a leg of lamb to celebrate Easter with the Karakul.
Of course, it is also favored for Muslim holidays such as Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha.
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