The heart of the matter

Once a staunch vegetarian, Franka Philip now enjoys warm pig head, duck heart on toast and curried liver

A favourite of West Indians – oxtail soup. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

It can strike at any time, any place—on the bus, the train or in the middle of a meeting. All of a sudden, I have this overwhelming urge to eat a huge bowl of something really comforting. Something like pig-foot souse, that would make me almost dribble at the thought of savouring the tender, piquant meat that’s been marinating in lemon juice, along with thinly sliced cucumber, garlic and onion, and generously seasoned with shadon beni and chive, with a splash of pepper sauce for that extra kick.

Souse is a delicacy that really divides foodies. Not surprisingly, because pig is still in many ways a taboo food. For some, eating pig is against their religion, and that I can understand—but I don’t get those wimps who come up with nonsense comments like, “Ooh, I can’t eat those little pigs’ feet because they’ve been walking through all that mud and muck.” What a load of rubbish.

On reflection, it’s not only when I talk about pigs’ trotters that people turn up their noses. They’re just as disdainful when I gush about the joys of oxtail, cowheel, tripe, kidneys or liver.

Offal simply isn’t everyone’s cup of tea these days. But it’s a pity, because these cuts of meat are usually cheaper, leaner and more flavoursome than the more fashionable cuts like fillet.

Offal has been a part of Caribbean cuisine since the days of slavery, when the slaves were forced to make do with the remnants left behind by the slave owners. It’s the same thing that happened in the United States, where chitterlings (pigs’ intestines) and pigs’ feet are key ingredients in what’s now known as “soul food.” In Italy, France and Spain offal forms the basis of what’s commonly known as “peasant food.”

Older relatives and friends who grew up in the Caribbean after World War II have said that offal was a fundamental part of their diet, especially because prime cuts of meat were either unaffordable or simply unavailable.

“My mother used to make tripe pie,” explained my friend Marge, who was a child in the 1940s. “She used to season up the tripe and cook it with potatoes, in the same way you would do a shepherd’s pie today. And it used to taste good.”

Cowheel and oxtail soups were much loved in my house, and I always looked forward to Saturdays, when Mummy would cook a thick soup with lots of dumplings, provisions, carrots and split peas.

One of my Brazilian colleagues waxes lyrical about their national dish, feijoada, a stew made of beans and cuts of meat like pigs’ ears and trotters, as well as salt beef and sausages. I’m looking forward to trying it, and I’ll definitely head to a Portuguese deli in London and pick up a feijoada kit comprising cuts of meat, black beans and seasoning.

At Caribbean restaurants in London, you’re not likely to get much in the way of offal-based dishes: stewed oxtail is possibly the only one on most menus. The best stewed oxtail I’ve tasted in London is at Mr Jerk, a Jamaican establishment on Wardour Street in Soho. They don’t skimp on their portions of meltingly tender meat falling off the bone, and the sauce is utterly divine.

Offal has had a resurgence in popularity in the UK in recent years, mainly because leading chefs across the country have been enthusiastically promoting British cuisine in their restaurants and pubs. It’s not unusual to go to a gastropub (a pub that serves high-quality food in a relaxed atmosphere) and find dishes like steak and kidney pie, oxtail and stuffed pigs’ trotters on the menu.

However, if you’re in London and you want a bit of offal heaven, the place to go is St John’s Restaurant, near the famous Smithfield Market, which used to be London’s main meat market.

Fergus Henderson, the brain behind the place, bases his food philosophy on using every edible part of an animal. In his best-selling cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating, he says, “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.”

I’m a huge Fergus Henderson fan, and not only can I vouch for the wonderfulness of his restaurant, but I’ve also successfully tried a number of his recipes including warm pig’s head, grilled and marinated calf’s heart, ducks’ hearts on toast with broad beans, ham and parsley sauce.

As with all things gastronomic, top-quality produce is key. I prefer to spend more on the best stuff but eat less of it. I rarely buy meat in the supermarket, and prefer to buy it straight from the producers. It’s like going to the San Juan Market, and buying chicken from Fam’lee, the Indian butcher (that’s not his name, it’s just what we call each other—I don’t actually know his name) who understands that if he sells you bad meat, you won’t buy from him again.

To this end, I’ve built up really good relationships with two excellent meat producers who are quite passionate about the animals they rear and keeping customers happy.
Honestly, though, cooking offal can be a tad intimidating and if it goes wrong, the results are usually much worse than if a “regular’” dish fails. For example, most people who don’t like liver have been scarred by the experience of being forced to eat bitter and overcooked liver as children.

To those people, I’d recommend curried liver from Ali’s Roti in San Juan, east Trinidad. You will never have such succulent and tasty chicken liver anywhere else.
One recipe you’re bound to find in most good Caribbean cookbooks is a recipe for unctuous oxtail stew. Virginia Burke’s Eat Caribbean draws on Cuban cuisine for a dish of oxtail with Rioja, while Ramin Ganeshram salutes Guyanese pepperpot in her delightful book Sweet Hands.

My favourite offal recipes are from the Cuban cookbook called Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, by Mary Urrutia Randelman. It was in this book that I discovered the Cuban love of brains. In the blurb for the sesos fritos (fried brains) recipe, Randelman says, “No Cuban cookbook would be complete without at least one recipe for brains, for there are many in Cuban cuisine.” Unfortunately, brains don’t do it for me at all, as I find the texture quite challenging. But Randelman’s rabo encendido (oxtail stew—“tail on fire”) is the thing to cook for a bunch of meat lovers.

Even though it’s very easy to get what are usually considered the best cuts of meat in the Caribbean these days, it’s great to know that our “peasant food” like oxtail and cowheel soup is still much loved. I think our culinary lives would be so boring without them.

Recipe: Rabo Encendido – Oxtail Stew (Tail on Fire)

3 lb oxtail, trimmed of fat and cut into two-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Juice of two limes
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup drained and chopped canned tomatoes or prepared tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 cup dry red wine
2 cups beef stock
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp pepper sauce
1 bay leaf
2 medium-sized chorizos or other spicy sausage sliced one inch thick (optional)
4 medium-sized potatoes

Method

Sprinkle the oxtails with the salt, pepper and lime juice.

In a large casserole over medium heat, heat the oil until fragrant, then brown the oxtails on all sides. Transfer them to a platter and discard the oil.

In the same casserole, heat the remaining oil over low heat until fragrant, then cook the onion, bell pepper and garlic, stirring until tender, about six–eight minutes.

Return the oxtails to the pot and add everything but the potatoes. Stir well and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for two hours.

Add the potatoes and cook an additional 30 minutes, until the oxtails and potatoes are done, and serve hot.

Adapted from Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urrutia Randelman with Joan Schwartz.