Half a decade ago, the world was divided as to whether offal was just another cut of meat, an “exotic edible” (as Andrew Zimmern delicately puts it) or downright unfit for human consumption. Today, with the ketogenic diet craze that has invaded the globe, offal has become part of a “healthy diet”.
Long before “keto” and “ketogenic” became buzzwords, offal has been part of the regular diet of people in many parts of the world.
Offal before Keto
In Asia, no part of the cow or pig goes to waste. Or even fish and chicken, for that matter. In China, pork blood soup has been consumed for over a thousand years. Pork tongue and ears are mainstays in the Chinese cold platter. Chicken feet, pig’s trotters and duck tongue are in the dimsum menu.
The Vietnamese bun bo Hue (beef noodle of Hue city) has “hunks of meat like marinated beef shank, oxtail, pig’s knuckles, and pig’s blood congealed into maroon, tofu-like cubes.”
In Japan and most of Southeast Asia including the Philippines, offal is often skewered and grilled, or added to soup.
In the Philippines, we eat everything — head, feet, eyes, snout, tongue, digestive organs, tail, tendon, 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.
And beyond Asia?
In the Middle east, maghz (ox brain) and nkhaat (lamb’s brain) are parboiled then pan fried. Kokoretsi — grilled offal (heart, lungs or kidneys) wrapped in lamb or goat intestines — and khash — boiled offal that may include parts of the head, stomach and feet — are eaten not only in the Middles East but also in Eastern Europe and Greece.
The British have their haggis, steak and kidney pie, brawn (or “head cheese” which is no cheese at all but a terrine made with meat from the head of the cow or pig) and black pudding a.k.a. blood sausage.
Denmark and Iceland have their versions of brawn and blood sausage. Finland and Sweden have blood sausages too. In Norway, two offal dishes traditionally served on Christmas — smalahove (salted and dried sheep’s head) and syltelabb (cured pig’s trotters).
The Germans call their “head cheese” Zungenwurst. The French have a sausage called andouillette made with pork or veal intestines. In Austria, there is beuschl, a stew made with veal lung and heart.
In Southern Europe, consumption of offal is even more widespread. In Spain, there’s callos a la Madrileña, a tripe stew, which is one of the more globally known offal dishes in the country. Menudo is another Spanish tripe stew. But there are lesser known offal dishes like pan-fried bull’s testicles (criadillas) and dishes made with pork and veal tongues.
In South America, the culture of offal consumption was already well-entrenched prior to European colonization as evidenced by the Bolivian anticuchos — skewered and grilled beef or chicken heart — and the arrival of the Europeans many have strengthened that culture even more. Variations of sopa de mondongo, a tripe and vegetable soup, are found in Puerto Rico, Panama, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Venezuela. In Argentina, huevos de toro (bull’s testicles) are served boiled or fried.
And that’s a short list, really, that’s only meant to show how popular offal is around the world. Except in north America.
The prejudice against offal
With the exception of the American South where the cuisine has been largely influenced by the French (who once colonized parts of the region) and Africans (the slaves brought their culture with them), eating offal, or organ meat as they like to call it, used to be uncommon in north America. Or, put another way, there were people who won’t eat offal if they see the meat it its pure offal form but they would eat it if it was no longer discernible as offal as when the offal has been ground and stuffed into sausage casings — because, yes, most sausages are made from leftover and unwanted meat especially offal.
I’ve always wondered at the “why”. Is it a class thing? That prime cuts are for the rich (and, in extension, the people in rich countries) while the rest — offal, organ meat, mystery meat or whatever they want to call it — is cheap and, therefore, meant for the poor?
But offal has traditionally been eaten in First World countries except the United States. Britain, France, Germany… And China. So, no, it can’t be mere economic status.
Then, I recalled when a friend whose family owns a restaurant attended a Southeast Asian chefs’ competition in Hong Kong. She came home 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.
So, the case against offal is a matter of perception?
Yes, it is. There are people who equate “pretty” with “tasty” and there are people who know better.
Offal in the Age of Keto
Eating offal, as a lifestyle, is less wasteful. Besides, offal by itself is delicious. There had been attempts by some chefs to highlight the value of eating offal in the past. Anthony Bourdain wrote an ode to offal. He once said, “Nearly anyone — after a few tries — can grill a fillet mignon or a sirloin steak. A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love, and time, and respect for one’s ingredients to properly deal with a pig’s ear or a kidney.”
I can still see TV chef Michael Symon wearing his “I love offal” T-shirts in his cooking show.
Still, eating offal didn’t really take off. It wasn’t until ketogenic diet became a thing that people finally began giving offal more than a passing thought. Offal (mammal offal from grass-fed animals, that is) is being hailed by keto proponents as highly nutritious and cheap too. Keto food bloggers are publishing offal recipes that look like dishes from fine dining restaurants. And it’s amazing how people are responding.
No one in my family is on ketogenic diet. But I’ve studied it because, for a time, we did consider adopting a ketogenic lifestyle. We didn’t. We love bread too much. I can’t drink my coffee without sugar and I can’t live without coffee.
But I love what the keto diet craze has done for offal. I really do. And I hope that the fad stays around long enough for one generation to embrace eating offal as a way of life and not just as a mere curiosity or a seasonal indulgence. I hope that the appreciation for offal becomes something that this generation can pass on to future generations.