The other day I snacked on brains battered and fried into Egyptian-style pakodas. This is your warning signal; if that sentence unleashed a violent gag reflex, it’s time to flip the page.
You dared to read on? Then steel yourself for my offal puns (pun absolutely intended) and gory details surrounding the treasure trove of “spare parts” specialities served across the city. But first, let’s define the squeamish scope of our discussion. The Oxford Companion to Food describes offal as “those parts of a meat animal which are used as food but which are not skeletal muscle. The term literally means ‘off fall,’ or the pieces which fall from the carcass when it is butchered.” This includes eyes, brains, tongue, heart, tripe, intestines, liver, kidney, trotters and tails for cows, sheep, goats and any other animal that falls outside of the fish and poultry categories.
Many from Old World cultures across the Middle East and Asia consider offal perfectly normal because they have grown up eating dishes like creamy brains over buttered toast (I did), sautéed masala liver (I also did) or slow-cooked trotters in gravy (I definitely did and hope you have too.) The Romans did too, which may or may not have influenced the Scottish haggis that calls for stuffing a sheep’s stomach with minced offal and oats.
Some offal dishes were traditionally seen as cheap meals for those who couldn’t afford fancier cuts of meat, like the Iraqi or Iranian pacheh, which is a fatty broth of head, tripe and trotters splashed over torn bread. Some are simply a product of being resourceful, like when our family sautés liver for breakfast during Eid Al Adha; it cooks faster than the other cuts received after the morning sacrifice. Some cultures take resourcefulness to unmatched levels. Iraqi food writer Nawal Nasrallah explains that in the old days, the residual heel bones of cooked trotters were collected by children as dice for board games, or used by vengeful first wives to inflict bad luck on a second wife, either by leaving the bones on the “enemy’s” doorstep or flinging them over her fence into the grounds.
Certain types of offal are held in particularly high esteem, like the eyeballs which are reserved for respected guests in some Arab cultures or chewy, crunchy, slimy parts that are prized for their texture in China. Many would flee from the dining table at the very thought of these “delicacies.”
Offal meat is not and will never be my first choice, but I do believe it is the most sustainable way of being a carnivore—to waste no part of the animal. Yet beliefs aside, while I will eat some forms of offal effortlessly, I still shudder at the sight of others. I haven’t yet found the stomach for tongue, despite having already consumed tripe, eyeballs, lungs, kidneys and parts that rhyme with “spectacles.”
There are two factors worth considering for the uninitiated who seek to sample offal. The first is to ensure that the restaurant is religious about how they clean their offal. Shawkath Ali mans the iron tawa at Mohammed Faisal, a Pakistani truck driver stop in Deira. He is an expert on sterilizing the goat’s kidneys, heart, liver and parts-that-must-not-be-named before they reach your plate as finely minced ‘katakat.’ He splashes the uncooked offal with cold water on the hot iron tawa, letting the water gradually come to a boil so that it can kill harmful bacteria and cause waste particles to surface. He skims off the scum, scrapes off the water and then repeats the cycle all over again until the water runs clear.
Another meticulous example is the pacheh at Bait Al Baghdadi, which involves a five-day process of cleaning and preparing the sheep’s head for the broth. This is the dish that ironically, a famous American chef called Andrew Zimmern used to introduce me to the eye-opening texture of eyeballs. He gingerly plucked the eye out of the broth, explaining why the eyeball itself was not particularly interesting, but rather it was the nerve behind the eye which resembled bone marrow. I can attest that it does.
The second factor to consider is to begin with dishes where the offal is finely chopped, should you not have the eye for the entire plate of sliced tongue in garlic cream sauce (incidentally available at the Uzbeki restaurant UZB Avenue) or leathery strips of tripe (whose appealing cartilaginous texture revealed itself to me in a well-seasoned Chinese hotpot at Chongqing Liu Yi Shou in Barsha).
Once again, I would recommend putting the training wheels on with Pakistani katakat, named after the drumming sound that the cook makes with his blades as he finely minces the offal and masalas on a hot tawa. By the time it reaches your plate, it looks like nothing more adventurous than a spicy egg scramble. The soupy pacheh at Bait Al Baghdadi might be a logical next step, followed by the grilled liver and fat kababs at Arabian Tea House.
Filipino restaurants like Bodega and Ihawan take you to the finishing line, with squiggly grilled intestines (isaw) and claws (though these are usually from the chicken, so technically not offal). And while I have never tried it, a friend once described slurping up Filipino Papaitan at a small eatery of Karama. She nonchalantly described this bile and offal soup as “hot and sour.”
I don’t have the guts to try that one quite yet.