Truth be told, I am often in the position of defending weird foods. I was born with a nature both omnivorous and prosyletizing–to which you must add my native desire to have everybody have what I’m having!
It all ends up sounding something like this in the soundtrack of my life: try the worm taco in Mexico City! Try the buried shark in Iceland! Try the fish-head curry in Penang, eyeballs and all!
That’s just me, in general.
But…there is no “weird” in the world that I crave as much as I crave tripe, one of the four stomachs of a cow. Unfortunately, there is no that has caused me as much Advocacy Rejection Sorrow! Many people simply turn up their noses at tripe, no matter how much heat I’m putting on. Damnit…I think tripe is one of the most delicious things on earth, and I will defend it to the death.
As I see it, there are three main reasons folks get the heebie-jeebies about tripe:
The “squirm follows function” principle.
As great as American eaters have become, there is still one big factor that separates us from good meat-eaters around the world: as soon as we’re asked toa part of an animal that had a recognizable function in life…our gastro-curiosity goes on vacation! Why do you suppose we’re the hamburger people? Because a hamburger never makes you think about function! But serve up a brain, or a kidney, or a heart, or even a foot–meat items beloved all over the world!–and, in America, let the nausea begin! Often, when I press the ant-functionistas, they tell me that in some way they think they’re being disrespectful to the animal by nibbling through its intimate parts. Oh, balderdash! If you’ve chosen to meat (a topic for another day), the only disrespect you can show is picking and choosing your way through an animal’s remains! To me it is the height of disrespect to slaughter an 800-pound animal, then insist on a three-pound tenderloin. Wow! The poor thing died to feed us! Respect it by consuming all of it; it’ll then be a good long time before another 800-pound animal gets sacrificed!
Welcome to the barnyard.
Some who have gotten as far as actually tasting tripe report that they’re turned off by the flavor, which is often described as “barnyard-y.” And the fact of the matter is….tripe can have an earthy dimension, to be sure. But here’s what most people do not know: when you buy tripe, you are buying meat that has been cleaned and pre-boiled! And the intensity of the earthiness has everything to do with how much cleaning and how much boiling went on! For me…lover of oozy cheeses and aged salumi…a little “earthy” is never a bad thing. I said a LITTLE “earthy!” If you buy poorly cleaned tripe, I can well understand your antipathy to da funk! If you think you have a tripe “problem,” you probably got funked last time you tried it. But trust me on this: find a butcher, or a restaurant, that keeps the earthiness to a subtle accent. Unless you’re a squeaky-clean diner all the way, I’m sure you’ll find it appealing!
Welcome to the rubber band.
And some who have gotten as far as actually tasting tripe report that they’re turned off by the texture, which is often described as “rubbery.” Once again–it all depends who’s doing the prep and the cooking! Yes it’s true: tripe that has been minimally pre-boiled, then not cooked very long by the chef (say, an hour or less), can have a bouncy, spongy, even rubbery chew. But this problem is so easily remedied. Tripe LOVES to cook together with long-cook kinds of pot-mates(tomatoes, garlic, cured pork)–yielding, after three or four hours, ribbons of meat that have melted into sexy, tender, deeply flavorful protein. Please don’t give up on tripe just because the one time you tried it it was seriously undercooked!
So let’s turn to the Wonderful World of Tripe Cookery…and a bunch of tripe dishes I suspect you’ll come to love as much as I do. The stuff’s as cheap as can be…why not give it a try? To market, to market!
One thing to keep in mind as you shop is that there are four types of tripe (because there are four different stomachs!). What you’ll find in markets most often is “honeycomb” tripe, so named because it looks a helluva a lot like the bees’ honeycomb.
Honeycomb tripe is great for long cooking; it melts into tenderness well, and the myriad crenellations pick up sauce like nobody’s business! But “book” tripe is also available, especially in Asian markets; as the name implies, this tripe has “leaves,” which look like “pages,” bound at the back by the stomach wall.
Finally, for wrapping my mind around this subject, I like to think of tripe dishes in several categories:
1) Light Tripe Dishes
I know…when you think “tripe,” you’re expecting rich and heavy dishes. But it ain’t necessarily so! Some traditions in the world like to keep tripe on the light side! The Cantonese tradition, for example. Whenever I’m in an authentic dim sum place, I look eagerly for the cart with the tripe…and then especially for the cart that carries the light, snow-colored tripe, usually made from many-leaved book tripe. It comes in a light, slightly oily broth–just a bit of it–with a few thin slivers of hot, fresh chiles and carrot lending interest. It is excellent starter tripe…never very earthy!
Another example of a “light” tripe dish is something I had in the Caribbean a few years back. There is a traditional dish made from calves’ feet called “cow foot souse”–a light, pickled thing, with shreds of foot, vinegar, and, again, some capsicum. A white dish, too. A creative chef made a version of it for me with long-cooked shreds of tripe–it was delicious!
2) Tripe Soups
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these around the world! It might be the most active tripe category of all! Culinarily it makes great sense, because most soups only get better as they cook; the three-four hour treatment is perfect here. And the earth-scented broth that emerges is divine. But another important reason is that many cultures consider tripe soup to be the perfect easy-to-ingest hangover cure. Even in Istanbul, Turkey–where, theoretically, the locals are not drinking alcohol at all–tons of little shops stay open very late on the weekends to serve Iskembe Corbasi, a white, creamy, egg-enriched, lemon-kissed, chile-laced tripe soup. It is delicious, and it does the job when you’re recovering from raki, Turkish ouzo, and a spiritual crisis.
But the tripe soup I know best is our very own menudo–extremely popular in the American southwest, in Central America, in Mexico. It is an orange-colored medium-thin broth, with lots of bobbing honeycomb tripe, not to mention floating posole, or fat, lime-slaked corn kernels. There are garnishes on the side, like cilantro, onion, jalapeño and lime, not to mention corn tortillas. Every time I visit my buddies in Texas Hill Country, we go for a great one–available only on Saturday and Sunday (prime post-drinking mornings)–at El Charro Restaurant in Johnson City, Texas.
I guess we have a theme going here–chiles and tripe!
3) Tripe Stews
Intriguingly–though tripe stew is another major theme in the tripe- world–most of the global tripe stews I know are not spicy. Instead, they are cook-it-in extravaganzas that usually express local flavors. Tripe in Florence gets a dose of Parmigiano-Reggiano; tripe in Normandy (the Caen variation) gets apple brandy (Calvados); tripe in the south of France, in Albi, gets saffron. All express a sense of place beautifully.
One of my favorites is from the northern Portuguese city of Porto–where, oddly enough, they do NOT including any fortified redin the cooking! But they do create a soulful pot of long-cooked tripe, flavored most notably with fabulous hunks of chouriço, the Portuguese equivalent of Spain’s famed smoky pork sausage chorizo. Almost every restaurant has it and, with a crackling glass of Vinho Verde, it is one of the most delicious things on earth. Perfect for winter dining!
4) The Incomparable, Uncategorizable French Variations on Tripe
My love for French culinary ingenuity knows no bounds–but screw the three-stars! My love for the very traditional tripe specialties of France–two dishes that have no analogues anywhere I know of in the gastro-universe–improbably trumps all else!
Tablier de Sapeur. If you haven’t done a tour of the little mom-and-pop restaurants of Lyon known as bouchons–there’s no time like the present! Last time I checked in, the moms and pops were still cooking–but I noted with horror that the sons and daughters were training as computer experts! The bouchon experience is something you must have…particularly because one of the great tripe dishes of the world has its home in these quirky little places. The name is odd; it literally means the “fireman’s apron,” because it used to be a triangular sheet of tripe, that once reminded someone of the kind of thick, triangular apron worn by sapeurs-pompiers, or firemen, in Lyon. The cooking is even odder: this broad stomach-y slab is breaded and fried! As if that were not enough richness for ya, the tripe itself comes from the particular stomach that the Lyonnais love–gras double, which means “double fat,” the fattiest stomach of them all. Bring your Alka-Seltzer!
Andouillette de Troye. But my greatest tripey love of all is reserved for the andouillette, a unique French sausage (nothing to do with N’Awlins)–basically ribbon-cut tripe stuffed inside an intestinal casing. There are tons of industrial ones in France–which always suck–but you want the hand-made one known as á la ficelle. I always need an andouillette within a day of arriving in France, just to feel like I’m there–but I’m particularly jazzed on the subject right now since, in June, I made my first pilgrimage to Troyes, the city in Champagne’s south, where this thing originated. More on Troyes at a later date; for the moment, the big news is that I found a little homey bistro, Le Relais Champenois, in the Champagne-growing town of Sezanne, that serves what is probably the greatest andouillette I’ve ever had.
Was it made in the kitchen? Non, Madame informed me–but it was made by a great andouillette producer about 15 miles away in Troyes. It is grilled, as andouillettes often are, and served with a creamy mustard sauce, as andouillettes often are. The whorls of tripe inside this thing, the juiciness, the bounciness, the subtle flavor…wow! If ma fellow Americans could only taste this…I don’t think we’d be having the tripe debate any longer!
Photos Via: Clove Garden, BigStockPhoto,