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Offal recipes for the stout of heart
Some readers may be put off, not to say shocked, at the very mention of the word “offal”, derived from the German Abfall, meaning disposal. The word the Germans themselves use is scarcely more appetising: Innereien, meaning innards. The Turkish term, sakatat, means rejects. Yet offal is undeservedly rejected, for it can be utterly delicious. A good source of protein, minerals and vitamins, it is nutritionally more valuable than muscle meat. Physicians used to advise eating it once a week for good health. Consuming offal also makes environmental and economic sense: it is a terrible waste to use only selected parts and to discard the rest.
At one time offal was the main ingredient in many fine dishes. The Victorian writer Mrs Beeton, author of The Book of Household Management, published in 1861, devoted several pages to recipes for whole heads, brains, sweetbreads and tripe, as well as the more usual oxtail and liver.
A year later, tripe soup was on the menu when the Viceroy of Egypt held a banquet aboard his yacht at Woolwich. This traditional Turkish dish was considered as fit as caviar for important guests. But even then there may have been some resistance. In his book of recipes commemorating the occasion, Turabi Effendi wrote: “Although the sound of tripe is not enticing, yet it will be found to make an excellent soup.” Today animals’ inner parts, organs and extremities are largely ignored in cookery books and excluded from restaurant menus. While we are happy to consume a succulent roast or a rare bonfile, offal is regarded as a regional eccentricity. Even among those who are less sentimental, there is a hierarchy of acceptability: liver is more readily approved of than lungs, sweetbreads than brains, tongue than head. Some kinds of offal may even be under threat from the European Union. Tripe, in particular, arouses suspicion.
It may be of some comfort to the squeamish that all offal in Turkey, not only tripe, comes from strictly herbivorous – in other words vegetarian – animals, mainly ruminants. As many may remember from their schooldays, ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and deer have four stomachs. Each has a distinctive texture which has given rise to several evocative names. In English we have honeycomb tripe, blanket tripe, and leaf or book tripe. In Turkish we have kırkambar (forty larders) and kırkbayır (forty hills).
The stomach known as şirden, with its smooth exterior, is made into Şirden Dolması (see recipe below), which, like Scottish haggis, is a spicy filling of minced meat or liver that is stuffed into the ﬂirden (or paunch) and parboiled. The other three stomachs are washed, scrubbed, soaked and boiled before being chopped up for the soup pan. If you want to know how tripe soup was prepared in Mrs Beeton’s day, see the recipe for Tripe Soup below.
Tripe may have been looked down on because the ingredients were cheap, preparation was fiddly, and it took a lot of cooking to tenderise. Also, the tripe from a single calf – tastier than sheep’s tripe – weighs on average 1.5kg, too large a quantity for a small family.
Nowadays, one can buy cleaned, whitened tripe by the kilo and cooking time can be drastically shortened with a pressure cooker. But the secret of a soup fit for Turabi Effendi’s banquet remains the lemony terbiye sauce, which gives the soup its velvety texture, and of course the accompanying piquant vinaigrette made with vinegar and garlic, which, like the French sauce diable, serves to balance the rich tripy flavour.
Tripe can also be parboiled and sautéed with onions and herbs – similar to tripe alla fiorentina or coated in an egg batter and deep-fried as fritters. Both these dishes are delicacies from the past. An entire culture has grown up around tripe in Turkey. There are still restaurants that sell nothing but tripe soup, a vinegary dish that clears the head and rescues the system from hangovers. Tripe soup shops are the only places that stay open round the clock and are particularly popular in the early hours. The noise is unmistakable, as the chefs, possibly to attract passers-by, punctuate the rapid staccato of their chopping with regular hits on a special metal bar next to the chopping board, like drummers with their cymbals.
Other restaurants serve only roasted sheep’s head with pilav. Still others, fast disappearing, serve only trotters. Indeed the whole business of offal is a highly specialised one. In Turkey offal-sellers (ciğerci, literally liver-men) still have their own shops, their trade being totally separate from that of butchers.
Like other ports – Rome, Venice, Barcelona and Oporto among them, all of which still have their own offal specialities on the menu – Istanbul had huge quantities of offal to make use of. In the days when Turkey had an empire, animals were slaughtered to supply the fleet and merchant vessels with meat. But the offal, which could not be preserved, had to be consumed on shore while it was still fresh. Offal is still the mainstay of meyhanes in the dock districts, which serve liver, sweetbreads, kidney, spleen and brains, mainly grilled and fried, as mezes or appetisers. Testicles, or “ram’s eggs”, are served as söylenmez kebap, literally the kebab that shall not be named. Customers stand at the bar eating little dishes with their wine or rakı…
1 lamb’s pluck (liver, lights and heart)
2 or 3 lamb’s cauls
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons pine kernels
Onion (chopped finely)
2 cups rice (rinsed)
Salt, black pepper and sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
2 tablespoons redcurrants
1 cup dill (chopped)
4 or 5 bay leaves
1 egg yolk (lightly beaten)
The festive dish of ciğer sarma (literally liver wrapped) is served as a spring treat. The filling is made with the tender pluck of a suckling lamb. The caul – the lace-like net of fat that lines the lamb’s stomach (crépine in French) – forms a crisp envelope for this succulent filling and is out of this world. In the Balkans the caul is kept in one piece and spread over the entire filling arranged in a baking dish. I prefer to prepare the dish in individual portions, as described below: it is easier to serve and makes for better presentation.
1 Wash the pluck and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove all the ducts from the liver and lights (lungs) and the arteries from the heart. Chop the meat finely or whizz it briefly in a food processor, taking care not to overprocess it – you don’t want to turn the texture to pulp. Set aside.
2 Soften the caul net by soaking it in a basin of hot water bearable to the touch.
3 Heat the oil in a shallow non-stick frying pan. Add the pine kernels. When they turn golden, add the onion and keep stirring until it softens a little. Then stir in the drained pluck and sauté until all the liquid is absorbed. Finally add the rice. Reduce the heat, and sauté the whole a little longer. Season with salt and black pepper and add a pinch of sugar, cinnamon, redcurrants and 2 cups of hot water. Increase the heat. When boiling, cover and reduce the heat to the minimum to simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat, add the dill, give it a stir and leave to cool.
4 Take the softened caul, stretch it slightly without tearing, and cut into squares about 10 by 10cm, the right size to line a coffee cup or ramekin, which will serve as a mould. Spread the caul inside the mould, leaving the sides to hang over the rim. Spoon the mixture into the centre, fold over the edges to cover and turn the mould onto a baking dish. Repeat until all the filling is wrapped and all the “parcels”, or ci€er sarma, are arranged side by side on the dish. Add the bay leaves and keep covered in the fridge until needed.
5 Half an hour before serving, heat the oven. Brush the parcels with the beaten egg. Add 2 cups of hot water to the dish and roast in the middle shelf of the oven until nicely browned and crisp.
6 Serve without delay on warm plates.
The other recipes in this article: İskembe Çorbası (Tripe Soup); Yoğurtlu Paça (Trotters in Yoghurt Sauce); Beyin Salatası (Brain Salad); Beyin Tavası (Brain Fritters); Dil (Tongue); Mumbar ve Şirden Dolması (Deep-Fried Sausages); Kıkırdaklı Poğaça (Savoury Crackling Pie).
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