Yes, we all love a whitetail deer backstrap. Those of us who grew up eating whitetail venison are happily familiar with its rich, comforting taste. I am not here to detract from the greatness of whitetail deer meat.
But I will argue that trying meat from different wild animals—yes, including exotic ones—should generate a sense of excitement. Feasting on diverse native and exotic species can create an appreciation for the best-tasting critters around. After all, there is no way to know if you will actually like eating zebra, or crocodile, or aoudad until you try them. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to hunt all over the world and also chase exotic species here in North America. I’m an adventuresome eater and never pass an opportunity to try new foods.
So, here I’ve ranked my favorite exotic wild game meats. For the purposes of this article, I consider “exotic” to mean any wild critter that’s not native to North America but can be found on the continent because it’s been introduced.
The pre-dawn air on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai was cool and refreshing. The crew at Go Hawaii Outfitters did an exceptional job putting us on deer and it wasn’t long before we watched herds of axis stream back to the rugged hills to hide from the the day’s heat.
A tall antlered buck climbed into view on a steep escarpment, and we wasted no time cutting the distance, setting up for the shot, and collecting our venison. There was very little smell when field dressing and skinning the axis deer, and I was getting hungry while butchering and packaging the meat. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.
We ate axis smash burgers, with nothing added but some salt and pepper. The flavor was outstanding and had a hint of sweetness. The proteins were mild-tasting and extremely tender. Our outfitters held a luau and served top sirloin steaks that had been transformed into cutlets and fried. I ate so much that I almost burst. Before our hunt was complete, we had eaten tenderloins, backstraps, ground meat, and prime steaks.
Read Next: Best Venison Recipes
The best-eating game animals are always debated in hunting camps, and axis deer continuously seems to come up. I’ve heard it argued that axis deer ranks as one of the top three best-tasting red meats on the planet. Although they are originally from India, axis have been introduced around the world for their taste and quality. I brought a cooler full of meat home and shared it with family and friends. Even the people claiming to dislike venison would try it—and then ask for more.
I was on a hunt in south Texas to field test Winchester’s XP3 bullets when they were first introduced. To my excitement, Nilgai antelope would be our target. A nilgai, or blue bull, is extremely tough, and stout shoulders and heavy skin protect their vitals. I was fortunate to harvest a cow and a bull, but the best part of the trip was eating nilgai.
Steaks cut from the loin were tender and flavorful, like taking the qualities of black Angus beef and crossing it with elk. There was no pronounced fat or marbling like with a beef steak, but the flavor of large lean steaks leaves you wanting more. I would hunt nilgai again in an instant, if only for the chance to enjoy a barbecue at the end of the day.
The scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild in its native country of North Africa, but it flourishes in south Texas (there are more than 10,000 of them in the Lone Star State). Animals from Texas ranches have been used to reintroduce the species in its native habitats.
Hunting scimitar-horned oryx is exciting and challenging. I have often claimed that the harder a species is to hunt, the better it tastes. Hunting scimitar-horned oryx with Steve Jones and his outfit Backcountry Hunts, I was fortunate to try out the Mossberg Patriot LR Hunter and Remington Premium Long Range featuring Speer Impact bullets. Steve had oryx on the menu every day, which made everyone in the camp hunt harder; the steaks and cutlets were standouts. We also ate ground oryx, which was admittedly good too, but they couldn’t compare to the steaks.
It’s a paradox: You would think a desert animal would taste lean, dry, and tough. The meat, however, was fork-tender and delicious. The oryx was perfectly cooked, too, which enhanced the subtle, earthy notes in the flavor. I have listened to debaters who argue that animals without tarsal glands taste the best, and it’s interesting to note that most of the exotic game on this list fits into that category.
I first tried eland in Namibia at Jamy Traut Hunting Safaris. To say it has left an impression on me is an understatement. I still dream about the lightly colored meat and sweet flavor. Like most antelope, it’s fine-grained, and cooking eland over hardwood coals elevated the experience. The char marks provided a punch of flavor where you would swear there were burned sugars crusted into the surface. We also had country-fried steak and gravy, which let the flavor of the meat come through, but I still preferred it alone on the plate.
Eland is hunted as an exotic in North America and remains on my bucket list for another meal or ten. I’d be happy to hunt them again in Africa, or Texas, or anywhere else.
Sika deer are members of the elk family, which might explain why they taste so good. Sika are tiny deer, with stags weighing about 90 pounds and females 70 pounds. Sika deer are originally from Japan, Taiwan, and East Asia but have been introduced to Texas, Virginia, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I discussed the characteristics of this meat with my friend Tim Joseph, vice president of Benelli USA, who has hunted sika several times close to his home.
“I’ve prepared a variety of the cuts myself, and I’ve also had the good fortune to have had it prepared by the hands of an expert chef who specialized in Sika deer as the chef at an eastern lodge here in Maryland,” says Joseph. “I’ve had it done as roasts, steaks, burgers, and even pastrami. I would describe the meat as closest to elk in texture and flavor but perhaps a bit sweeter than elk. The meat is darker than your average whitetail. I’ve never experienced any of the gamey aftertaste that can come from some whitetail cuts. The sika meat I’ve had has been tender and flavorful with a relatively fine grain to the meat.”
I ventured to New Zealand and fulfilled a bucket list adventure by taking a silver medal red stag with Glen Dene Hunting. All big game is considered exotic in New Zealand, but red stag is the exotic that the country is probably best known for. We ate several meals of stag, and it lived up to the reputation of excellent venison.
A red stag backstrap grilled over hot coals tastes not unlike a good whitetail or mule deer backstrap. The distinctive deer flavor sneaks through in the background with an almost musky—though not unpleasant—flavor. The fine-grained meat is tender and moist. Like any venison, overcooking can quickly change the qualities of the meat, so shoot for medium-rare.
The taste takes me back to my tarsal gland theory, where we would expect subtle gamey flavors, which must be embraced.
Fallow deer were plentiful in New Zealand, and I harvested several on a DIY trip, which meant plenty of meat in camp. The best comparison would be to mule deer. The taste of deer is present but mild, and the flavor is appetizing. This species is not as good to eat as axis deer, but would hold its own against red stag. Like most deer, any large muscle made for good grilling that resulted in a fine-grained steak that stayed tender if not overcooked.
Blackbuck is a cool-looking antelope with long, spiral horns. They are dainty, and a set of blackbuck backstraps can easily be consumed in a single meal with the right crowd of hunters. Blackbuck has more rich flavor than most exotic species; I would describe it like a lamb.
My buddy Shawn Skipper of Leupold Optics harvested a blackbuck, and we were eager to try those steaks. The tenderloins were placed in a simple marinade and cooked on a Camp Chef Grill Box. It had perfect temperatures, char marks, and the medium-rare meat made for an exquisite meal. The meat is denser than most antelope but remains moist on the plate. It had the subtle nuances of deer and lamb. It was a treat, and nothing was left at the end of the meal.
Zebra is a strange animal to add to the list of best eating exotics. A restaurant in Namibia serves zebra and backs up its claim as the best steak you’ll ever eat, or it’s free. A zebra is an animal that most North Americans equate to a horse, which most people in North America don’t eat. In some African cultures, eating zebra is taboo; other cultures embrace it. There are several different species of zebra, and not all grace a plate equally
Zebra meat is marbled like a good cut of beef, with similar taste and texture. It is tender and juicy and, when cooked properly, will leave you wondering why it isn’t served in high-dollar steakhouses everywhere. I think Mountain zebras make much better table fare than plains zebras. Zebra is an exotic that can be hunted in Texas if you want to try this unique species without crossing any seas. Or, if you ever get to Windhoek, look for a good steakhouse that serves zebra.
Could a huge, thick-skinned water buffalo be worthy of a top ten best-eating exotics list? I would not have believed it if my buddy Andrew Howard of Howard Communications had not shared his adventure, which was more of a “fill the freezer” type of hunt. Andrew drove to the OX Ranch in Texas for a cow water buffalo, and reports the meat is fantastic. The roasts and burgers in particular were excellent.
“The steaks were okay, but don’t expect it to be like prime beef,” Howard says. “There isn’t a ton of fat in the steaks, and what’s there is pretty dense. What was nice about the steaks is that it allowed me to experiment and perfect some steak cooking techniques and not risk ruining a nice ribeye.”
Water buffalo meat was good enough that Howard made a return trip to Texas to restock the freezer. If you have ever considered hunting an exotic species in order to load up on meat, a water buffalo provides plenty.
Read Next: 10 Best Tasting Game Animals
Final Thoughts on the Best Exotic Wild Game
There is a long list of exotic game animals available for hunting and dining. These animals tend to be well managed these days, and hunting is part of that management. Visiting places where the locals refuse to eat certain species isn’t uncommon. Blackbuck is a good example, because they are often overlooked as a food source and just considered a trophy (even though they are delicious on the plate). So my advice is to always try the weird, wacky, wonderful, or different. You will never know what an animal it tastes like unless you try it. Be brave, and you might find your new favorite meat. In many cases, non-trophy exotics can be hunted at reasonable prices, making the adventure an economical way to obtain some great-tasting game.