Monday, 26 February 2007

What's So Awful About Offal?

Posted by Andrew

When I say the word “offal” to you, what comes to your mind? For those of you familiar with the term, “innards” is likely what you’d throw back at me.

What if I asked you if you’d eat offal?

Some of you are probably having a mental gag reflex right now, huh?

Offal seems to get a bad rap from the mainstream North American society, but offal as food doesn’t seem as alien or “gross” (if I may put it that way for some of you) to many peoples around the world. So why is it seen with disdain by many North Americans? I’m siding with the school of thought that believes when European settlers first came to North America they saw it as “land of the plenty” and therefore over time only went for the choicest parts of animals. In much of the Old World, resources have been more limited and therefore as much of the animals have been used as possible. Over time some of the innards have become synonymous with certain cultures (e.g. Scotland’s haggis), while some also have become prized delicacies (e.g. sweetbreads, foie gras). Yet some have even been reputed to hold medicinal qualities (e.g. bear gall bladders).

If you feel so repulsed from eating any offal at all (vegetarians aside), chances are you may have eaten some during your lifetime… you know how many types of sausages are held together? That outer “skin” is often intestinal linings.

“Offal’s so… dirty”
That’s the most common misperception I encounter from people who shun offal. Perhaps the main reason people have this psychological barrier is that some of the organs exist as filters for the animal body (e.g. livers, kidneys). In reality the innards themselves are fine, and strict health standards in North America and Europe help ensure that they are well cleaned before they are sold and served. The biggest concern nowadays is cross-contamination, and this can happen anywhere with any cuts of meat from the slaughterhouse to the kitchen.

“It looks and tastes weird”
Yes, most forms of offal may not look too appetizing in raw form, but then again, many forms of meat don’t look too edible when raw in any case. It may be difficult for some people to open their minds to try some, but this, like the thought of “dirty” offal, is mostly psychological. It can be a tough barrier to break, but once you do so you can perhaps better appreciate these less common cuts of meats, or at least the effort put in by chefs to make them as agreeably edible as possible.

As for taste and texture, there is no denying that offal is different from your typical cuts of meat. All your steaks, chops, tenderloins and what not are essentially muscles and so have that similar structural texture to varying degrees; the fact that they’re all muscles is also why the different cuts from the same type of animal seem to have very similar flavours. Most forms of offal however are not muscles for physical exertion and/or maintenance of body structure and therefore lack that texture. Different innards have different roles in an animal’s body, and that can also affect flavour and texture. Even similar innards can taste different from animal to animal. For example, pork liver tends to have a rougher texture (especially if overcooked), duck liver (AKA foie gras) is smoother, and veal liver would fall somewhere in the middle.

“Not the healthiest food to eat”
Now this is a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, offal is rich in nutrients, but it also has some considerable downsides to one’s health. Some of them are loaded in cholesterol, and some can also have high fat content (for example, foie gras is literally French for “fat liver”).

Fat is more of a concern for adults than for children as children have higher metabolism rates and are generally very energetic. For adults, with high cholesterol the risk of heart disease is one consequence one has to bear in mind, and this has a fatality factor. Furthermore, eating offal increases the risk of you getting gout or further aggravating this often painful form of arthritis where an acid crystallizes at the joints. Though not fatal, this disease can be very excruciating.

So, for those of you who do eat offal, please do so in moderation. If money’s not the limiting factor, consider your own long-term health at the very least.

The following is a sample list of some of the culinary dishes containing offal that you might find all over the world:
- Haggis: a classic Scottish dish in which sheep’s innards are wrapped in its stomach.
- Foie Gras: popularized by the French, pan-seared is the most common cooking method for this luxurious food item.
- Liver & Onions: Baby beef liver is normally used in this dish. The liver is usually pan-fried in fillet form and the onions add some muted sweetness to it.
- “Little Boat” Congee: congee is porridge made of rice often attributed to Cantonese cuisine. This particular type of congee contains a good mix of different cuts of meat, mostly if not solely pork based. Pork liver and kidney slices are must-have items in this particular congee along with ordinary pork meat.

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