qatari feast-roast lamb with close up on fat tail copy

Anissa: It has been quite a while since Charles Perry did a guest post here but following a discussion and various questions on twitter about fat tail, I thought I would turn to our chief historian of medieval Arab cookery and ask him to enlighten everyone! Here is what he sent me.

Charles: Europeans and Americans – and Australians, I’m sure – are always amazed when they see the huge tails of Middle Eastern sheep. One of the first to be amazed was Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BC that there was a breed in Asia Minor with a tail up to 18 inches wide and another with a tail four and a half feet long. The latter sort, he said, had to be supported by a little cart made for it by the shepherd.

I’ve heard the story that they still make tail carriages in Turkey but I can’t confirm it. And I have to say the dimensions given by Herodotus seem extravagant. Tails of the Awassi variety, which predominates in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, only reach about 12 inches (30 cm) in width and a little less than that in length, and much larger tails would be a serious obstacle to milking the ewes.

a-le mouton et le murier

Still, the fat tails can be huge. An adult ram may have a tail weighing 12 kg, of which only 70 g are bone, the rest being nearly pure fat. Ewes have smaller tails, perhaps half as large.

fat tails copy

And Herodotus was right, the tails can take several shapes. The Awassi, which probably resembles the original fat-tail breed pretty closely, has a roughly rectangular beaver-tail shape. The Karaman breed, which accounts for two thirds of the sheep in Turkey, also has a beaver tail, except that it has a little S-shaped finial, and the Daglic, which is prominent in west-central Turkey, has a more triangular tail. Central Asian sheep tend to have shorter tails then Middle Eastern, but definitely fatty – they look as if they have little pillows resting on their rumps.

All wild sheep have thin tails, as European sheep do. The fat tail is a feature humans created by breeding sheep to concentrate their subcutaneous fat in the tail. The purpose was convenience in harvesting fat for cooking.

Like all warm-blooded animals, sheep deposit fat in several parts of their bodies. Deep in the interior it takes the convenient form of big chunks, but a lot of fat (in thin-tailed sheep) is deposited right under the skin. This makes it harder to harvest, and it also makes it a different kind of fat. Temperatures are always higher deep in the body, so internal fat has to have a high melting point, while subcutaneous fat is exposed to ambient temperatures and has to have a low melting point for the sheep to be able to metabolize it.
Many westerners have had the experience of starting to work on a lamb chop and then getting distracted by lively conversation, only to find that when they returned to the chop it was lukewarm and chewing it deposited an unpleasant tallowy coating on the roof of the mouth. That’s because sheep have relatively high body temperatures, so their internal fat doesn’t melt in the human mouth.

Tail fat doesn’t have that problem. Since the tail is exposed to low temperatures on four sides, it has a particularly low melting point – it’s more like bacon fat or butter; slightly muttony bacon fat or butter. I think European and American cooks would instinctively remove as much fat as possible from a lamb dish, but in the Middle East and Central Asia, the fat is desirable. In Central Asia, it’s the chief frying fat. Throughout the fat-tail zone people often add a bit of fat to kufta or kebab, or even the clarified butter used for making baklava, in order to add a faint gamy tang.

damascus-souk el-srijeh copy copy

By the way, that fat-tail zone covers almost all of the Old World. Thin tailed varieties survive only at the margins – Morocco, southern India, Tibet … and, of course, Europe. If it weren’t that Europeans discovered the Americas and Australia and introduced their sheep varieties there, thin-tailed sheep would probably be in the process of disappearing.

A few years ago I presented a paper on tail fat at the Oxford Symposium, and when I gave my opinion that it seemed to be growing less popular, a number of people in the audience hooted at the idea. I still hold to that opinion, though. You still may get a bit of tail fat in your kufta and lahm mishwi in Lebanon and Syria, but it is no longer a predominant cooking fat. Arabic and Turkish cookbooks rarely call for tail these days. In 1993 I visited Uzbekistan, a country where you can smell frying sheep fat in every market and residential neighborhood, and I found that the one gift people would have wanted me to bring them was olive oil, or maybe canola oil, because Uzbeks have become fat-conscious and cholesterol-conscious.

But it’s true that tail fat has enjoyed varying popularity down through the ages. In the 10th-century cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh, it’s quite rare – the usual cooking fat is olive oil. The recipes came from the court at Baghdad, so maybe this just reflects a snobbish preference for an expensive imported ingredient, since the olive doesn’t grow in Iraq. Another Baghdad book with the same name from 300 years later used lots and lots of tail fat. Whenever meat is about to be fried, like clockwork the recipe begins “melt tail.” On the other hand, 240 more recipes were added to that book during the 13th century, and only one of them calls for tail.

Here are a few interesting recipes from the 13th-century Syrian book Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib. I have not attempted to work them out because you can’t get tail fat here in Los Angeles. Of course, you could use clarified butter. It wouldn’t give the same flavor as tail fat, but at least it wouldn’t coat the roof of your mouth.

gaziantep-making own sandwiches-close up copy

Sharaih misriyya, Another recipe, delicious, the best there is. Take loin meat, cut it in pieces and cut tail fat the same size. Insert two pieces of meat and two pieces of fat on the skewer and roast as mentioned on a charcoal fire. Whenever the fat is about to drip, raise the tip of the skewer so that the fat drips onto the meat. Smear it with rose water and saffron and repeat several times until it is done. Sprinkle coriander seed on it and eat.

Another recipe. Take a liver, boil it and pound with it an equal amount of tail fat, and put hot spices and mixed spices with it. Stuff sausages with it, and it is delicious.

Artificial marrow. Take copper pipes the size of thighbones which are plugged at one end. Then take liver and boil it until done. Take a piece of it and a piece of tail fat, pound them fine and put them in the copper tubes and plug the end with dough. Put them in boiling water and boil until done. Shake them out in the bowl. They come out like marrow in color and flavor.

Harisa is boiled meat shredded and mixed with wheat cooked overnight and then pounded to a smooth consistency. The recipe ends: “Melt fresh tail fat and put it on the surface when you ladle it out. Throw finely ground cumin and cinnamon on it separately. Eat with aged soy sauce and fresh lemon juice.”

Anissa: Thank you Charles. Fascinating. Even today, people in the Emirates pour ghee over h’riss (their name for harisa or Lebanese h’risseh) and I am pretty sure that in some places, they use melted liyeh (arabic for fat tail) instead of ghee.

As for the pictures, the top one is of a whole lamb roast that was served at a feast in Doha with the tail on! I took some and it was wonderful. The middle picture is of lambs in a market with some having just been sheared and even though the picture is not brilliant, you can see the shape of the fat tail. The following picture is of a butcher in souk el-Srijeh in Damascus next to a lamb carcass that has most of the fat tail still on while the bottom picture is of a kebab stall in Gaziantep in south eastern Turkey. The white bits are pieces of grilled fat tail. My favourite part!

Ps. I have added the illustration of the sheep dragging his tail on a cart which may be the same one as Charles used in the paper he gave on fat-tail sheep at the Oxford Symposium in 1994. He couldn’t remember where he had taken it from and today, I was writing about Aida Kanafani-Zahar and suddenly I remembered her book, le Mouton et le Murier (the Mutton and the Mulberry Tree) and lo and behold, there was the illustration. So, I scanned it and updated the post. I will also link to Charles’ paper as soon as it is up in google books where all the symposium papers are or will be!

There is 42 comments on this post

  • This was so informative, thank you Charles and Anissa! I remember vividly the day when i was a child and was invited over to dinner by a neighbor. I loudly declared her rice inedible, since the poor woman was an Istanbullu and cooked her rice with butter, as opposed to my mom who used “antep fat” (code for tail fat in our family). Alas, she had to stop doing that after my father had a stroke and fat was strickly forbidden.

  • oh, that’s too bad hande. my mom and i love fat tail and we always fight (nicely of course :)) over the limited cubes that are grilled with the kebabs when we go out to eat. it’s funny, she never grills meat at home while my grandma did but she had my uncles to help her. glad you enjoyed the post. charles is brilliant!

  • Dear Anissa,
    I have been reading your blog for a while now and continue to enjoy it immensely. I have been to the Oxford Food Symposium for a couple of years now and have heard the wonderful Charles Perry speak. In fact, Cherry Ripe was the one who first introduced me to you (not physically unfortuneately, but hopefully soon). This blog post is brillant – being Indian myself there is so much similarity between our foods but I have never come across this phenomenon of using tail fat – I wonder if it is used at all in India!

  • thank you anandi. you should find out and let us know. would be v interesting 🙂

  • Very interesting interview, thank you. I have read that tail fat is correlated the sheeps’ ability to adopt to extreme environments mainly the long, hard summers of the Middle East and North Africa. It is an energy source when food is scarce. I do wonder if the flavor of the fat changes according to what the animal eats.

  • Anissa and Anandi,
    according to the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary ‘doombur’ is ‘The name commonly given in India to the fat-tailed sheep’. Aided by the name, I found this video clip from a market in Mumbai:

  • The large-tail Han sheep of China are said to have tails weighing up to 25 kg. See this FAO paper: http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/x6549e/x6549e00.pdf (page 113 and on).
    Here are more recent photos of Han sheep and other Chinese breeds: http://www.consdabi.org/Eventi/RazzeCinesi/S3OviniCinesi/RazzeOvinenative/RazzeNative.htm

  • Charles, I have a couple of questions:

    You say: “Temperatures are always higher deep in the body, so internal fat has to have a high melting point, while subcutaneous fat is exposed to ambient temperatures and has to have a low melting point for the sheep to be able to metabolize it.” What is your reference for this statement? Although the internal temperature in the deep interior of an animal may be more than that at the extremities, my experience is that the difference is never more than a couple degrees. How will this small difference effect melting point? And I assume you are referring to the melting point of raw adipose tissue, not rendered fat. Is this what you mean?

    Although advertisements describe heavy exercise with terms like “fat burning,” the process of turning the stored energy in fat back into usable energy is not what we think of in cooking as melting.

    Later in the article, you seem to sometimes be talking about using raw lamb fat for cooking and sometimes rendered fat. Could you please clarify when you mean which? Thanks.

  • Peter — I get this scientific information from a book on the world’s sheep varieties published by the FAO. Fat has to be liquid in form for an animal to metabolize it, but it has to remain unmelted up to that point to serve as a reserve of energy, I assume that in metabolization the body heats its fat slightly. I’m pretty sure the “fat burning” in ads is just a metaphor.
    Raw fat is added to kufta and to skewers of kebab (in some places, they they make kebab of nothing but fat). For frying, it is rendered just like pork fat. Rendered fat is also used in making baklava.

  • The Turkish term for suet (in its looser sense of visceral fat, not just that surrounding the kidney) is iç ya?? (literally: inside fat). I have always wondered why it would be constructed this way (what would the opposite of inside fat be: subcutaneous fat?) and thought of it as a quirk, or charm of another language’s expressivity. Reading this post, it suddenly struck me that the opposite would of course be the quite visible (“outside!”) fat of the sheep’s tail (kuyruk ya??).

    One encounters both iç ya?? and kuyruk ya?? quite often in all the older cookbooks including the Melceü’t-tabbahîn (oldest printed Ottoman cookbook) which I am struggling through right now. Often the recipe assumes a daily familiarity with these ingredients that is completely beyond my grasp. For instance, there are recipes that call for wrapping skewered meat in what one assumes would be (thin as caul? otherwise how thick?) sheets of fat before grilling. The mechanic of how this is done properly escapes me.

    The Chinese for the breed of large tail sheep is ??? (hope those characters come out properly on Anissa’s website which doesn’t always work properly with the Turkish keyboard). The term for lamb kebabs made from meat (and skewered fat) of this/these breed/s is ?????. If these come out properly, cut and paste unto google image or baidu.com for hundreds of photos.


  • I guess those characters (Apple Turkish and Chinese keyboards) didn’t come out well. Sorry. The second Turkish word above (“fat”) is yagi, g = the yumusak ge; i = the undotted Turkish i)

    The pinyin is “da wei yang”

  • Anissa,

    If liyeh is sheep tail fat, what is “inside fat” in Arabic?

    Sheep tail fat is used for herise in Turkey at least throughout the east and southeast. I had a wonderful version of this in Hatay, which as you know is one of my favorite food cities in Turkey. It’s this fat that makes it so different from Hyderabadi haleem (and we have many terrific examples of haleem-some handpounded etc-here in Chicago!).

  • wow, great comments. thank you all and thank you again charles for a brilliant post as always and for answering peter. v interesting. i wonder if i will be able to melt my fat if i exercised hard enough while still enjoying tail fat and other. i didn’t say this at the end of the post but we eat tail fat raw (cut into tiny cubes) with raw liver for breakfast or as a mezze. like the liver, the fat has to be v fresh in which case it’s soft and almost wobbly with a marvelous texture otherwise it’s harder and not so nice. and ove, loved the links especially the picture of the chinese lamb with the tail falling to the floor as if it were a wedding gown trail. and richard, sorry about the website not translating the turkish and chinese characters. i will check with my friend who does my IT if he can install a plugin for that.

  • the other fat is called shahmeh and this applies to all fat, even human. we would joke with someone who’s put on weight saying they’re accumulating shahmeh. charles, any other names in arabic for inside fat?

  • Charles: Thanks for the clarification.

  • That image you just added is taken from Hiob Leutholf’s (Job Ludolph’s) great 17th c history of Ethiopia. the attribution on the caption to this reproduction is to Rudolph (sic?) the Elder.

    Ethiopia is apparently the origin of the fat-tail sheep breed, whence they spread west to the Maghreb, south to southern Africa, east all the way to Beijing, or at least to the doorstep of Beijing.

    I put in the characters for “yang (sheep) wei (tail) you (fat)” into the search engine and it turns out that sheep-tail fat is widely available commercially in northern and western China:


    So all of those lamb kebabs I scarfed down in north and west China used sheep-tail fat! That said, here and there on the net, you find denunciations of unscrupulous practices of adulterating sheep-tail fat with duck fat or even (horrors!) pork fat. The advice given: make sure to go to a qingzhen (Muslim, i.e. halal) kebab specialist of you want the real thing!


    Also cf this fascinating account of China’s attempt to crack down on adulteration in trying to create a halal food industry:


  • it’s surprising that kanafani-zahar got the illustration wrong given that she is a v serious academic at the CNRS (i think). thanks for this richard. and thanks for the links. so interesting.

  • Well, we don’t know if she made the mistake (Rudolf for Ludolph) or if her publisher edited/printed incorrectly or even whether or not it is Zeuner’s mistake.

    That looks like a fascinating book. I will be at Newberry Library tomorrow. Maybe they have a copy. If not maybe the Regenstein.

  • it is a fascinating book, and her first, muneh, is equally fascinating. her work is great.

  • susan weingarten
    March 6, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Hi Anissa
    great blog!
    You may be interested to hear that fat-tail sheep appear in the Bible: in Exodus 29.22: there is a sacrifice of a ram with its ‘fat-tail,’ translated as such by the New English Bible, although the Revised Version has ‘rump’. The Hebrew word used is alyah, very similar to the Arabic. There are a few other places in the Bible where it appears too.
    The Aramaic translation of Exodus has alyata and this is how it appears in talmudic sources from Late Antiquity. The 3rd century Palestinian Mishnah talks about sheep with carts for their tails, presumably the tail-carriages you and Charles were discussing. The 5th-7th century Babylonian Talmud, quoting a proverb cited by a rabbi who came from Palestine refers to it as very desirable and expensive food:
    Someone who eats alyata will have to hide in the upper room [from his creditors]; someone who eats vegetables will be able to sit in the open in full view.
    This is a play on words, as ‘upper room’ in Aramaic is ‘alyata.

  • this is so interesting. thanks susan. and glad you like the blog 🙂

  • I saved this article for my morning breakfast read, and it was well worth it. Superbly written and very informative. Makes me wonder whether the parallel to fat tails is camel hump fat…I don’t think butter is made out camel hump fat, but it does beg the question whether it’s possible.

  • i did think about that arva but i don’t think it’s the same thing cos people pull the meat from under the hump and they don’t eat the fat, and as far as i know don’t use it either. i did have a plan (inspired by jonathan gold) to do camel hump lardo but i never put it into action. perhaps i should explore it more fully on my next visit 🙂

  • ok guys, thanks to laura kelley, senior research scientist at battelle memorial institute, you can get fat tail in the US. here is what she posted on facebook when ken albala shared charles’ guest post:

    My local Persian market gets it for me. They do good business in Halal meats. If you can use it after it has been frozen, Alibaba.com also has a supplier from Xinjiang who will ship as little as 1.5 Kg tail fat to the US.
    Charles: There is also a Karakul breeder in California’s central valley. You could try contacting him for fresh tails. According to the registry of breeders, his name is: Stephan Black; 13183 Rices Crossing Road; Oregon House, CA 95962; home: 530-635-1750; e-mail: stephan@succeed.net Good luck!

  • I am going to do some sleuthing around for tails this weekend here in Chicago. Maybe make my own khlii with it.

    I just found the old post on camel hump fat:

    Shocked to find my own comments from 2 years ago on it. Had forgotten I had left those comments. And of course my own understanding of the different roasting processes is so different now from back then-now that I have spent time observing roasting in Tokat, in Konya, in the Kurdish east, as well as the “gastra” method of roasting in Greece!

    (Anissa, we have one of the few rare copies in the US of Le mouton et le murier here in Chicago. Someone took it out the day I went to fetch it. :0( Whoever reading this blog took it last week, please hurry up so that I can have a look!)


  • this is so funny richard. tell me if you find out who took le mouton et le murier out. have you tried buying it on amazon.fr? i think this is where i got it although it was a few years back. let me know what you find but if i am not mistaken khlii is made with beef and not lamb but perhaps the fat is liyeh. must look into it. i will check your comments on the camel hump post now 🙂

  • Just read Richard’s comments on camel fat – what a great read! You know you have a though-provoking blog when readers leave treasure troves of info in the comments section 😀

    Richard mentioned that camel burgers are sometimes made using camel fat. Ironic, cause I just saw a place in Bastakiya, Dubai selling camel burgers yesterday. Not sure if the burger uses camel fat, but I think it’d be worth checking it out. It was already on my list of must-try’s, but now it pretty much skyrockets up to the super high priority edibles section!

  • it it is the same place i went to, you can give it a miss. the meat was disgusting. really awful. bastakiyah is the old quarter, well built as if it were old :), right?

  • I have some compelling additional data on sheep tail fat, collected while chatting with Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians of various tribes living here in Chicago. They all know about the enjoyment of sheep tail fat. A lot of this information is anecdotal in nature and I won’t have time to process/verify but thought I would register some of these here anyway before this post of Anissa’s slips too far back into the black hole of the archives. I would be glad to share my other notes if anyone is interested in the subject.

    In particular, I spent quite a bit of time interviewing the owners of two local Ethiopian food businesses. I headed first to a superb butcher/grocery close to my house ran by a lovely couple who are both Oromos from Addis. At the back of this meat market is a small informal (semi-legal?) eatery frequented by the Ethiopians in the neighborhood (bec of the pristine quality of the meat purveyed here, this secret back room is my preferred place in Chicago to eat kitfo which I like raw, tere siga, quanta.)

    I also stopped by to talk to the owners of an eatery called Lake Langano because I knew that two partners (one Sidama and the second a Wolayta) came from minority ethnic groups. (Incidentally, Lake Langano is also an excellent place for kitfo, being one of the few places in the country to serve it with the fermented enset cake called qocho, or kocho. It might also be the only place in the country where one could have tere siga prepared with the Welayta condiment called datta).

    I had of course started out assuming that tail fat is specialized knowledge, familiar only to such a specialist meat purveyors or remote rural/pastoral communities; it soon become quite clear that its usage as food, indeed as a delicacy (one of my correspondents said: “well, we can’t eat lamb everyday back home”) is general to all ethnic groups in Ethiopia and “known” to everyone with the possible exception of long-citified folks.

    Once they got going, both the Sidama and the Wolayta became quite animated and gushed with faraway looks in their eyes, about what a wonderful thing it is. It is cut into small cubes. The texture is “like tofu”. “Could I use visceral fat in its stead (I said “this fat” while pointing to my sternum)?” “Of course not” (the answer I expected). The Amhara word for it is “beg lat” (i.e. “yebeg lat”), lat being the specific word for tail fat, distinguishing it from “choma”, visceral fat. Both of them described it in very visual ways speaking of a specific color which they spoke of as being very beautiful. The Amharas eat it raw (“tere”) simply dipping the cubes in mitmita. The Wolaytas prefer it lebleb (“rare”) with green pepper, garlic etc, i.e. as a kind of tibs. It can also be enjoyed in dulet (an offal hash which includes lamb tripe and liver). “If I find such a piece of fat for you, could you prepare it for me?”. “Yes, but the animals in this country have no taste. When someone makes dulet in Ethiopia, the whole village smells it. Here you smell nothing.” (she is suggesting that it will probably be the same way with the fat I bring.)

    “Is all sheep in Ethiopia the kind with fat tails?” My butcher said “yes”. I had heard versions of a fairly outlandish story from different sources about how in certain tribes an incision is made into the sheep tail and salt introduce inside. It was the butcher who gave me a version that makes the most sense to me. Apparently, it is sheepherders who make the incision, put in salt (which has the effect of liquifying fat: who knew?!) and then suck the fat out. He said that this is done secretly as a form of “stealing” from the owner of the flock. Another quite outlandish story (almost certainly a tall tale) has it that in a neighboring country (which I will not name here), tail fat is injected into the butt of small girls to make these specially big and beautiful (!!!). There is a hint of a mild racial slur in this story, although it was said without any malice and more in the gleeful spirit of relaying a specially juicy piece of gossip.

    Anyway, that’s a sketch of my material.


  • this is brilliant richard. thanks so much. you’ll have to take me to your butcher when i come to chicago. nearly made it in may but they couldn’t put the routing on my ticket without making it more expensive 🙂

  • Rather late in replying, but as I was googling to try to discover where cooking lambs’ tails originated, I enjoyed reading your article. I am interested because some in my family here in New Zealand eat lambs tails after docking. The tails are cut usually when the lambs are a couple of months old, and once enough have been done (on the same morning) they are then thrown on an open fire until the wool is black. Then they’re taken off the fire, cooling a little and then cut open and chewed on. Some of the pleasure as a child is in the fat running down the chin and black faces and hands – very messy and a very unique taste!

  • I am wondering where to buy fat tail (lamb rump) in USA, I live in Los Angeles and tried to find it – no success
    Maybe you give me a hand and suggest where I can get it.

  • as far as i know, i don’t think you can

  • I also look for tail fat but i simply cant find it in Massachussets.. 🙁 Where can we find it? any idea???

  • i doubt you will be able to find it…

  • I thought that fat tail sheep were a natural selection. I thought it use to help them get through the dry seasons.

  • A few years later… I don’t know if this reflects its increasing availability everywhere in the US, but I’ve recently seen (fresh) sheep tail fat at a local chain of small grocery store/butcher shops operated by ethnic Uzbeks here in Brooklyn, NY (southeast Brooklyn). Their English isn’t great and I don’t speak Russian well enough (or Uzbek at all) to even try to get into a conversation with them about where they get their meat, or if they know if it’s becoming more widely available in general, but it does suggest that someone is raising fat-tailed sheep here these days.

  • or they are imported?

  • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I didn’t think it was very likely that it would be imported, given the very tight restrictions on importing uncooked meat (and meat products) into the US that make it impractical except on a large scale, but I figured there wasn’t much point in just speculating about the source, and didn’t get a chance to stop by the store when their meat counter was open until this weekend. But as it turns out, it _is_ domestic. Apparently they get it from the same farm in Pennsylvania where they get the rest of their fresh meat.

  • This is so interesting. Please email me the details of the farm. Thank you 🙂

  • If you have reached any information or details about the tail fat sheep farms please send it to my email as well I live in Virginia

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