Offal: ultimate nose-to-tail eating

22nd February 2022 | Alison Turner

Offer a vegan a steak and they’ll be appalled. Offer a meat-eater some offal, and they’ll likely respond the same way. But for older generations, offal was commonly served up at dinner tables around Australia. In lean times during the Great Depression and the World Wars, offal was a cheap, nourishing way to feed a family. However, it’s now fallen out of favour. But as we seek to eat more sustainably, is it time we brought it back?

Offal is the name given to the internal organs of animals, but also commonly includes other parts of the animal, such as the tongue, brain and hooves, or “trotters”. Like many others of her generation, my 84-year-old mother grew up eating offal, and recalls the joys of being able to go into the local butcher to ask, “Have you got any brains?” When my brother and I were very young, she’d cook us fried liver and onions, sheep’s brains in white sauce (*shudder*) or steak and kidney pie. However, we both lived to tell the tale.

Offal Sicilian spleen sandwiches
Sicilian spleen sandwiches are made with stewed or fried beef spleen and fresh lemon.

The wonderful world of offal

The practice of eating offal is common in other cultures, unlike here in Australia. One of the most famous would have to be foie gras, a pâté made from duck or goose liver; a delicacy in French cuisine. In Italy, many of their traditional dishes feature offal. There’s pajata, which is made from the intestines of an unweaned calf that’s only consumed its mother’s milk. Spleen sandwiches are big in Sicily; Florentine has its own tripe dish, trippa alla Fiorentina.

In China, offal stars in any number of dishes. For instance, you can feast on “Dragon in the Flame of Desire”. This specialty dish is made from steamed, fried and flambéed yak penis. Men believe that eating it makes them more virile. And if you’re feeling a bit under the weather after a big night in Georgia, you can sup on khashi, a soup made by boiling beef intestines, tripe and shank as well as other organs such as kidneys. It’s known as the ultimate cure for a hangover. Although getting it down might be a problem.

Offal tripe
Can you stomach it? Tripe is packed with nutrients.

It’s offally good for you

Eating offal doesn’t just reduce food waste by using up the entire animal. It’s also incredibly nutritious. Tripe – the edible lining of an animal’s stomach – is rich in iron, calcium, protein, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12. Try slicing it and braising it with garlic.

Brains contain essential omega-3 fatty acids – healthy oils that are believed to boost brain power. This obviously explains why my brother and I are so very smart. Try them crumbed, fried or – if you’re not squeamish – served with the dreaded white sauce.

Heart is a fantastic source of iron, B vitamins, folate, zinc and selenium. It’s also a good source of coenzyme Q10. This compound helps generate energy in your cells. Ask your butcher to cut a heart in half and remove the ventricles. Then sear it until it’s rare or medium. Or make anticuchos – beef heart kebabs, a popular Peruvian street food.

However, liver would have to be the nutritional superstar of the offal world. It’s chock-full of protein, folate, iron, vitamins A and B, zinc, selenium and copper. It also contains coenzyme Q10. Try it fried with onions, or cook it up with bacon and a rich gravy.

Have a heart for sustainable eating: try offal.

Where to buy offal

The best place to start is at your local butcher’s (go on, ask ’em if they’ve got any brains). Griffith Butchery, a free-range, pasture-fed specialist butcher in Canberra, has a large range of offal, from chicken, duck, ox and calf liver to lamb’s hearts, kidneys and brains. You can also get yourself some pork caul – the fatty membrane between a pig’s stomach and diaphragm. Or you could try sweetbreads. Despite popular belief, this has nothing to do with testicles. It’s the pancreas or thymus gland, typically from a calf or lamb.

A number of online retailers are also now offering offal for sale. Paddock-to-plate meat subscription service Our Cow sells beef kidney, heart and tongue, as well as ox tail. Sydney’s Australian Meat Emporium offers a variety of offal, including chicken and beef livers and hearts. Hope Island Gourmet Meats on the Gold Coast has ox kidney and beef tripe; lamb brains, kidneys, liver and sweetbreads; chicken and duck liver; and pork trotters.

Josh Niland's Fish Butchery offers Murray cod fat caramel and stracciatella gelato ice cream
Josh Niland’s Fish Butchery offers Murray cod fat caramel and stracciatella gelato ice cream.

Eating in or out

Not sure where to begin on your offal journey? If you’re looking for classic offal recipes, you can always turn to my mother’s culinary bible, The Commonsense Cookery Book. The Country Women’s Association’s Seventy Years in the Kitchen also has loads of recipes.

Offal is also increasingly appearing on the menus of top restaurants here and around the world. Fish Butchery’s Josh Niland creates masterpieces out of fish eyes, fish fat and even fish sperm. Michelin-starred legend Heston Blumenthal dished up calf’s brain custard for a Roman feast. Darren Robertson’s Rocker Bondi has offered pig’s head hash browns. Also in Bondi, Icebergs Dining Room and Bar has had sweetbread carbonara on the menu.

The Tripe Club Victoria holds regular events for tripe lovers. Its next meeting on February 24 will feature an entrée of tripe and zucchini bruschetta with broad beans, ricotta and gremolata; and a main course of beef and tripe pochero with steamed rice or tripe in white onion sauce with green peas, bacon and parsley. My mum will see you there.

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