Last year, while eating out at a restaurant, I overheard a waiter ask another customer if there was anything she didn’t eat. She replied she ate everything, “except meat from inside an animal”. She meant offal or organ meat, but it left me puzzled. Doesn’t all meat come from inside the animal?
Offal tends to be divisive. Some jump for joy when they see duck heart skewers or lamb brain on a menu, while others completely refuse to eat any organ meat. Growing up in a small French-Canadian town, my dad would often pan-fry liver at home or order sweetbreads in restaurants, so I always thought these were just like any other cuts of meat. In many countries, offal is also eaten without a second thought.
“In Chinese cuisine, eating offal is not seen as exotic or gourmet but an everyday food, with some, considered a delicacy, such as fish maw,” says Super Ling chef Michael Li. “I grew up eating chicken feet and beef tripe, duck tongue and pig’s trotters. When slow-cooked for hours, they become tender and incredibly rich in flavour and texture – absolutely delicious.”
Even if Australians can be quite curious when it comes to new cuisines, many have a mental barrier about offal. “While they might willingly eat sausages, liver pâté, oxtail and beef cheeks, the general public are still not as comfortable with the idea of eating the internal organs, entrails or the more unusual parts of an animal, such as ears and tongues,” says Li.
Chef Maria Kabal is from Estonia, where offal is common. She’d love to see Australians be more open to trying it: “I think people have ideas of what offal is and is supposed to taste like, maybe because they had it prepared in really terrible ways before. But one thing I really enjoy in my cooking is changing people’s perception of it.”
“I grew up eating chicken feet and beef tripe, duck tongue and pig’s trotters. When slow-cooked for hours, they become tender and incredibly rich in flavour and texture – absolutely delicious.”
At Tokar Estate, in the Yarra Valley, she doesn’t shy away putting from tripe and sweetbreads on the menu.
“Everybody likes a good steak, but it can get a bit boring. There’s not that much flavour in lean cuts of meats. With offal, you can be a bit more creative,” she explains.
At Super Ling, in Melbourne, Li serves his handmade noodles with braised pig's ears, honeycomb tripe, beef tongue and beef shin. He also has a dish of barramundi collar, a part of the fish that’s often discarded.
Fish offal is a thing, too
Fish offal is having a bit of a moment in Australia thanks to the work of Josh Niland at Saint Peter and Fish Butchery in Sydney. “My agenda is to bring desirability to the secondary cuts that are most commonly thrown into the bin. I don’t understand how as a country and a continent, we’ve normalised throwing away half of the fish,” he says.
“Everybody likes a good steak, but it can get a bit boring. There’s not that much flavour in lean cuts of meats. With offal, you can be a bit more creative.”
The chef, who works only with Australian fish, can transform any part into something delicious. He turns the eyeballs of mirror dory into chips, fish fat into caramel and tuna loin scrapings into pepperoni. He even makes a fish banh mi, with kingfish liver pâté and mortadella made with kingfish milt (fish sperm).
Cooking with offal at home
Home cooks might not start making kingfish mortadella just yet, but Niland wants to inspire them to think about fish differently. In The Whole Fish Cookbook, he gives the recipe for his signature fish liver pâté, a good starting point. He also recommends keeping fish fat to roast potatoes and scraping fish roe into polenta or scrambled eggs.
When it comes to meat, Kabal recommends starting with sweetbreads or tripe. “Tripe is a good thing to throw into soup and stews. It has a nice, gelatinous texture,” she says.
Is offal finally taking off?
We’ve been talking about the importance of adopting the nose-to-tail way of cooking for decades, but it looks like Australians might finally be ready to embrace the philosophy.
“I think people are realising how cheap and economical, as well as nutritious, offal can be. And in a society where waste is such a current issue and awareness of it is increasing, it’s more sustainable to eat and not waste any part of the animal,” says Li.
“My agenda is to bring desirability to the secondary cuts that are always thrown into the bin. I don’t understand how as a country and a continent, we’ve normalised throwing away half of the fish.”
In Sydney, Niland says that the second he puts fish offal on his menu, it outsells everything else: “People come to the restaurant and ask why the eye chips are not on the menu or the fish liver pâté. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that people are craving this kind of food rather than just a fillet or scallops or prawns.”
If you need more cooking inspiration, check out our offal recipe collection.
"This is a great example of nose-to-tail eating. Beef heart is a working muscle, and like any good steak, needs fast cooking over high heat to remain tender. Serve these kebabs with a hefty garden salad made with baby carrots, cucumbers, radish and lots of green leaves." Matthew Evans, For the Love of Meat
What I loved about Lyon was the authentic bouchons (restaurants) that serve dishes passed down from generation to generation. The highlight of bouchons, for me, were the offal dishes on offer, and tripe was always the star of the show.
Eating brains can be scary for some but they really are quite delicious. This is a good recipe for people who are uneasy about them – who could possibly resist a golden deep-fried morsel with a crispy crust surrounding a creamy, silky inside? The spicy horseradish mayonnaise gives an extra tangy bite.
Like a good steak, you only flip the ox tongue once on the barbecue. The papaya in the marinade helps to soften the tongue, which, when cooked, is wonderfully tender. Jaew som, sometimes referred to as jaew bong, is a sweet and spicy Laotian dipping sauce. Any offal doubters will be converted by this recipe.