by Dr Annie Woodhouse
I must first confess that I have never seen a water-buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) in Australia. I have seen many in various parts of Asia and they were domesticated, seemingly well-trained, quiet beasts. I have not spent enough time in the areas of Australia that are wet enough for this water-loving bovid to sustain a living as a feral, and I’m guessing, not-so-quiet animal.
So who eats water-buffalo?
Although water-buffalo meat is eaten in many parts of the world, it is not highly consumed, with many other meats taking more of the market. On the other hand, water-buffalo milk is very popular and a large part of the world’s milk consumption comes from the water-buffalo. More than 95 per cent of the water-buffalo population is found in Asia, with more than half of those in India and the next largest population in China. In India, water-buffaloes produce about 70 per cent of the milk, despite being only 35 per cent of the dairy animals. Similarly, the water-buffalo is the main dairy animal of Pakistan.
The milk is higher in fats, protein and calcium than dairy cow milk and, in addition to being widely consumed as milk, it can also be turned into a variety of cheeses. In Australia, there is a strong market for buffalo milk and specialty cheeses, as well as add-on lines such as buffalo milk soap. Water-buffaloes were introduced into South America in the 1890s and this area may be one of the largest consumers of buffalo meat.
How did water-buffaloes come to Australia?
The first water-buffaloes were brought to the Northern Territory from Indonesia in the 1820s. Some sources claim that 80 animals were transported to Melville Island and Cobourg Peninsula between 1825 and 1843. Some say it was to provide meat, while other sources say that the water-buffaloes were introduced primarily to pull carts in the British settlements. Australia has two types of water-buffaloes: the river type with curled horns from western Asia, and the swamp type with swept-back horns from eastern Asia.
What happened that made water-buffaloes a problem in Australia?
In the mid-1800s, many of the British settlements were abandoned and the water-buffaloes either escaped or were just left. The animals soon colonised the permanent and semi permanent swamps and freshwater springs of the Top End of the Northern Territory, where they had ready access to food and water. By the late 1800s, large numbers of water-buffaloes could be found on the northern flood plains and Melville Island.
Water-buffaloes are large (450 to 1200kg) herbivores, with males eating up to 30kg of dry matter each day and living for about 20 years. Feral water-buffaloes have been a major environmental disaster in the wetlands of the Top End. They are more sensitive to heat than most bovids because they have fewer sweat glands. They wallow in mud to keep cool and also cake themselves with mud as protection from biting insects.
From as early as 1886, a small water-buffalo harvesting industry developed and the animals were shot for their hides. This continued through until the first half of the 20th century. There were also attempts to re-domesticate the animals and to develop a live food export market. One researcher indicated that by 1955-56, nearly 400,000 water-buffaloes had been shot for hides and a further 140,000 had been slaughtered for pet food and human consumption. By the 1970s, feral buffalo numbers were so high that they were destroying wetlands and harbouring diseases and a water-buffalo eradication program was initiated as part of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC). While the BTEC reduced water-buffalo numbers significantly at the time, it has proved impossible to eradicate them and large numbers live across the wet areas of the top of Australia.
What does water-buffalo meat taste like?
As always, I am reluctant to answer this question for fear of not doing water-buffalo meat a proper service. However, in my opinion, water-buffalo meat tastes similar to beef. The cuts I used when testing recipes for this article were tender and had no offensive ‘gamy’ taste, but I will add that all the recipes were slow cooked. I may just have had an older animal or did not choose the correct cuts, but I did try some fast cooking with the meat and while tasty, it was a little tough.
Water-buffalo meat is darker than beef and is a healthier alternative as it contains less fat and cholesterol and is higher in protein. Like any meat, how the water-buffalo tastes will be dependent on its age, gender, condition and preparation.
Where can I find water-buffalo meat?
Water-buffalo meat is not readily available in mainstream supermarkets, but it can be sourced from quality meat suppliers in each state and territory.
If you wish to hunt and prepare your own water-buffalo meat, you will obviously need to observe all local regulations and laws.There is a water-buffalo safari industry and there are a number of operators who will organise a water-buffalo hunt and experience for you.
I think the best option is to use any recipe that you would generally follow for beef and slow cook. The flavour, color and texture will be a little different, but water-buffalo is good meat if prepared well. With water-buffalo, the trick is to use low heat and cook slowly.
Slow-cooked water-buffalo casserole
- 1kg water-buffalo – cut into just bigger than bite-size pieces
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium brown onion – chopped
- 2 medium carrots – chopped
- 4 celery stalks – chopped
- 4 garlic cloves – finely chopped
- 2 x 400g cans diced tomatoes
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- ½ cup beef stock
- handful fresh thyme
- salt and pepper – to taste
Marinate the water-buffalo in the wine for 1 hour.
Heat oil in a large frypan over medium-high heat. Cook the onion, carrot, celery and garlic until the onion has softened.
Add the meat and wine. Bring to the boil and then turn to low heat.
Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, stock and thyme. Cover and cook for 4 hours or until the meat is tender.
Season to your taste then serve with mashed potato or sweet potato, or with couscous.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium brown onion – diced
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 cups (generous) mushrooms
- salt and pepper – to taste
- 1½ cups beef stock
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1kg water-buffalo – cubed
Heat oil in pan. Add the onion, paprika and mushrooms, season and cook for 3 minutes or until the onion is soft.
Add the beef stock and sour cream. Turn down the heat and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the meat, cover and cook on low heat for about 4 hours or until the meat is tender.
Serve with pasta.
Slow-cooked water-buffalo with spicy adobo marinade
- 1-3 large red chillies – dependent on taste
- 4 cloves garlic – coarsely chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons fresh (or 2 teaspoons dried) oregano leaves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1.5 to 1.7kg water-buffalo – whole
- ¾ cup water
Finely chop the chillies and pound to a paste in a mortar and pestle with the garlic, cumin, oregano and salt. Mix in the black pepper, lemon juice and oil.
Rub the meat all over with the marinade. Cover, refrigerate and allow to marinate overnight.
Preheat oven to 130C, place meat in a baking dish and pour water around it. Tightly cover the dish and cook for about 8 hours or until the meat is fall-apart tender. Test for doneness by pushing the meat with your finger – it should give way completely.
Allow the meat to stand for 10 to 20 minutes. To serve, use two forks to pull the meat apart in loose shreds into the cooking liquids.
Garnish with sliced avocado, coriander and sliced limes and serve with beans, chunky guacamole or sliced avocado, salsa and buns or wraps.