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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gut Shot: The Joys of Tripe

Posted by Patrick Alan Coleman on Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 1:39 PM

7872/1239741281-tripe.jpg

It happened again. Yesterday at lunch, while idly flipping through the small menu of a downtown eatery, I found a tripe dish and immediately decided it would be my meal. It never fails. If there is tripe on the menu, I will order it.

I’m not really sure why this is so. It’s not as if I have an inordinate affection for tripe. I’m not even particularly fond of the texture, or the taste; in fact, I often will myself to get most of it down. Yet, for some reason, I am compelled to order tripe.

Yesterday’s lunch was one of the more heroic tripe dishes I’ve seen in the city. I don’t want to give too much away here, as the restaurant is currently under review for next week’s issue, but suffice it to say… this was mondo tripe.

For those uninitiated in the ways of offal, tripe is most often made from the stomachs of cows. There are several different types of tripe because a cow is a ruminant and has the use of four stomachs to digest whatever it happens to be eating (best case scenario: grass). Blanket tripe comes from the rumen, or the first stomach of the cow, Honeycomb tripe comes from the second stomach known as the reticulum, and the last stomach, called the omasum, produces book tripe. Blanket, honeycomb, and book are fairly accurate descriptors of the various forms of tripe. Blanket tripe is mostly smooth on both sides, and is used less often than the others. Honeycomb tripe, so called because of the delicately honeycombed surface, is much easier to find and prized for its relative tenderness. Book tripe is a bit harder to come by and resembles the layered pages of a book.

I’m fairly certain the tripe I ate for lunch yesterday was of the honeycomb variety, but it was difficult to tell, to be honest, because of the way the tripe had been cut—connective tissue and odd shapes throughout—making it a mass of large wiggly bits. “Hacked” may actually be the more appropriate term.

Tripe has a very unique taste and consistency. If prepared right, it will be tender between the teeth but still retain a firm and springy quality. The honeycomb pitting (or book leafs) are a textural wonder on the tongue, but have the added benefit of trapping any liquid or sauce in which they may have been prepared. Still, it can take some getting used to.

For me, the flavor is the most intriguing aspect of tripe. In every dish I’ve had, it’s basically the same. There is a bottomless quality to the flavor. It’s like dropping your palate into a deep, slightly stagnant abyss. The flavor comes on slow and then lingers for awhile—the smell of a dairy farm still clinging to your clothes even after you’ve left, or a sunny well used pasture you just happened to fall asleep in. It’s a muted, understated kind of flavor. For me, eating tripe is analogous to being punched in the throat by a very weak, slightly smelly old man—in slow motion.

Of course, none of this sounds very pleasant. So why order it? Because I have a feeling that in this world (even this city) there are incredible tripe dishes, and I want to find them. There is a distinct potential in the laid back funk of this slightly rubbery variety meat.

Also, it seems only right as a meat eater that I should avail myself of the entire animal. Who am I to just blithely trip through my days eating nothing but muscle tissue and leaving the rest behind? If I am to be a meat eater, and a responsible one, I should be ready to eat whichever part of the animal is available. To me, eating offal makes the act of consuming animals just a tad more morally defensible. Ideally, nothing should be wasted.

So there it is, tripe, in almost every food way from Asia to South America and all points in between. Done right, it is food for comfort and celebration: giving strength, curing hangovers, honoring loved ones past. Tripe is a food that continues to hang in there despite our society’s squeamishness, and thanks to young and accomplished chefs across the country who relish cooking tail to hoof, it’s had somewhat of a come back in recent years.

And I’ll keep ordering it. If only for the giggle I get when I think of the bizarre redundancy of digesting it.

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