In exultation of beef tendon and all things offal
I’m not scared of animal parts that most of my Western counterparts wouldn’t eat. I eat pig’s and cow’s (and even the chicken’s) brain, I suck out the marrow from that part of the fish bone that separates the head from the body, I eat the gelatinous skin on the head of a milkfish, I eat pig’s and cow’s tripe, intestines, stomach, tendon… And I eat them not to prove that I am more adventurous or more sophisticated than others but simply because I grew up eating those animal parts. So, they don’t scare me.
In Asia, no part of the cow or pig goes to waste. Or even fish and chicken, for that matter. We eat everything — head, feet, eyes, snout, internal organs, marrow from the bones (the bones can’t be chewed so we make broth with them)… Heck, we even cook with blood and eat duck embryos.
The thing about fear and prejudice is that you don’t know what you’re missing. You balk and never discover that the tastiest part of the fish is the head where most of the bones are. The nearer the flesh to the bone, the more succulent it is. But if you’ve eaten no fish other than fillet all your life, you wouldn’t know that. If you’re partial to white chicken meat (which to me is the driest and most tasteless part of the bird), you wouldn’t know either that the tastiest part of the chicken is a small oval piece of red meat attached to the back bone.
I also eat animal parts that don’t look like meat at all. Like the tendon. I love its sticky gelatinous texture and the way it just melts in the mouth. A lot of people wouldn’t touch tendon and that’s really a pity because, when cooked right, it is delicious in a level that is beyond the usual meat experience.
Recently, I read a thoughtful commentary about how less wasteful it would be (and how much more there will be for everyone to eat) if people would embrace more the Asian attitude toward food and get over the fear of meat that didn’t look like steak or chops or ribs or fish or chicken fillets. I think it was in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw. I scanned the book looking for it but I couldn’t locate it, so I might be mistaken but I really think it was there that I read it.
I am aware that a huge chunk of the world’s population would either consider offal as “exotic edible”, as Andrew Zimmern delicately puts is, or downright unfit for human consumption. I wouldn’t point my finger at the First World in general since offal is nothing unusual in British and French food, and they are both decidedly First World countries.
From what I’ve read, in North America many parts of the pig or beef, and even fish, are not considered palatable unless ground or processed into indistinguishable mush that won’t hurt the diner’s sensibilities. Unless eating in Chinatown, fish would be served in fillet form, for instance, chicken would be leg quarters or breast fillet, never chicken feet or heads. Beef tripe and other internal organs are only normal if eating Mexican food. And so on…
Of course, it’s a culture thing and has nothing to do with certain parts of an animal being edible or not. It has nothing to do with the sophisticated palate either but, rather, on cultural prejudices. For instance, a friend whose family owns a steakhouse attended a Southeast Asian restaurant chefs’ competition in Hong Kong with a story about a chef who lost because he served his fish whole, gaping eyes and all. I thought, so what? This is Asia. But my friend insisted that it was unacceptable because in gourmet cooking, there are standards that dictate to never make visible any part of the animal that might hurt the sensibilities of the diner.
And I wondered: Whose standards? The Chinese make up the huge chunk of the world’s population, their most celebrated dishes include whole fish — and these dishes have been served to emperors since heaven knows when. Roast whole pig, served with its head intact, is found across various cultures and it is considered a delicacy.
Okay, so maybe, we’re too Westernized. Former American colony, pervasive American media… maybe, my friend’s perspective shouldn’t be too surprising. Still, it saddens me. I think that the Asians’ more open attitude toward edible animal parts should be preserved and promoted rather than suppressed and killed in favor of other cultural standards. I agree with that commentary from “Bourdain-maybe” that the Asian way is less wasteful resulting in more food for everyone.