THE DISH THAT (DIS)UNITES CIVILIZATIONS
A bowl of tripe can take you a long way. Not only in Bulgaria
There is something that at the same time unites and disunites the Bulgarians to a much greater extent than politics, the economy, education, other people's wealth, public transport, football, international relations, or the former king's properties. It is nothing that is written about in books or featured in films; it is not the product of religion, ideology, or even of culture. I refer to a dish that a large group of Bulgarians swear by, but the very thought of which sickens others. According to my findings, the results of a modest scientific piece of research, those in the first camp outnumber those in the latter by 15 times. What is this divisive dish? Tripe soup!
There is no national cuisine in Bulgaria. I have to digress here, because I can picture the look of outrage on Bulgarian readers' faces. I will ask just a single question: can you name a Bulgarian dish which does not also exist in Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, or Romania, or most probably in all of them, with the possible exception of Eggs à la Panagyurishte? The Bulgarians, probably to overcome some obscure culinary inferiority complex, however, like to brag about their tripe. Almost every one of us knows where they cook good tripe soup, has a favourite kind, and will eagerly treat you to some. Ninety percent of the tripe eaters think that it is the perfect way to wind up a long night (or to start an early morning, depending on how you look at it), and a large percentage believe that Bulgarian tripe is the best in the world.
In Bulgaria, tripe is eaten at any time, normally in the form of soup. While the more adventurous of us cautiously experiment with roasted tripe or tripe stuffed with mushrooms and/or cheese, we are traditionalists who would rather stick to our mothers' recipes. To corroborate this, I can adduce copies of the menus of at least a dozen relatively good Bulgarian restaurants where the choice of tripe is limited to either Tripe Fried in Butter or Tripe in Breadcrumbs.
Although Bulgarian cooks and their mothers may be devoid of imagination, the fact of the matter is that in Bulgaria, in 2006, tripe soup is being served in posh restaurants and local diners alike. Tripe is eaten by ministers and truck drivers. About 60 percent of those interviewed claim that a good tripe eatery should have a strong smell of garlic soaked in vinegar, and over 30 percent of the (mainly male) respondents say that the best tripe diners they know are located close to a prison. Tripe is to the Bulgarians what pizza is to the Italians and onion soup to the French.
But my modest scientific research will disappoint those who rank Bulgarian tripe higher than any other tripe. Yes, with a certain degree of national shame I have to admit that the Bulgarians are not by any means the only ones competing for first prize in the tripe championship.
Alexandre Dumas, whose books I have enjoyed since my youth when one of the memorable after school experiences was an XXL helping of tripe soup at the Labour Day Diner, wrote in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine: "Seven cities have claimed the honour of being Homer's birthplace, while France and Italy argue about who had the honour of discovering how to prepare beef tripe. For my part, if I had the moral right to do so, I would abandon any claim which France might make in this respect. But duties are imposed on us, and we do not concede our claim on this score to the inhabitants of Milan."
Despite some loving memories related to the French town of Caen, the unanimously recognised centre of tripe cuisine in France, I have to admit that Dumas was right, to a degree. Italian tripe is not only delicious, but it is prepared in at least a dozen enjoyable ways. The local variety in Milan is called Busecca and involves two kinds of tripe cooked in a sauce flavoured with sage. It is served on pieces of bread, sprinkled with cheese and slightly grilled.
In Florence, the capital of the Renaissance, tripe braised with tomato and marjoram is called Lampredotto. Alternatively, it is served with white beans and grated Parmesan. On the southern side of the Arno, the district of San Frediano used to be the location of kitchens where tripe was boiled in huge cauldrons over wood fires, then hung up on metal hooks to drain. The boiling liquor, known as "the broth of San Frediano", was originally poured away into the river. Neighbourhood artisans, however, quickly put it to good use. Some bread dipped in it and seasoned with salt and pepper developed into a favourite afternoon snack.
Trippa alla Romana is flavoured with mint. It goes with two types of sauce: either thick tomato or melted cheese. In Apulia, one of the popular meat dishes is Quagghiariddi in which sheep tripe is stuffed with lamb's liver, salami, cheese and parsley, mixed with eggs, and then cooked in an earthenware pot in the oven. In the past, when poor families did not have ovens, artists depicted young Italian damsels carrying earthenware pots full of tripe balanced on their heads to the neighbourhood baker on Saturdays.
Trippa alla pisana is served in green sauce and Trippa alla luchese includes cinnamon. Tripe from Emilia Romagna, considered by poets to be Italy's culinary Mecca, has nutmeg among its ingredients; the Piedmontese prefer their regional tripe dish with mushrooms, sautéed separately. Their neighbours in Liguria are proud of their Trippa alla genovese. They add dried mushrooms, broad beans, and sliced fresh potatoes to the boiling tripe pot. On the island of Sardinia, which rears a third of Italy's sheep and goats, long strips of kid and lamb tripe are twisted together into a rope up to three feet long, and then grilled on a spit. It may also be cooked in a pot over a slow fire in olive oil with peas and beans. As Antonio Carluccio writes in his book, Southern Italian Feast: "Every time I see tripe in a trusted restaurant, I order it immediately because, like pasta e fagioli, it is one of those simple dishes by which you can measure the chef's abilities."
On the other side of the Alps, the French are so serious about their tripe that they have invented a special pot called La tripière. It is a large, squat ceramic container with a small opening. The lid is of vital significance: it has to fit on very tightly. To keep the flavoursome aroma of the simmering delicacy inside, some cooks often seal it with dough.
One of the best French tripe recipes comes from Lyon. Contrary to French gastronomic tradition requiring long and complex preparation of even the simplest food, the Lyonnaise take an oblong slab of tripe about half an inch thick, coat it with a mixture of beaten yolk and breadcrumbs, and grill it to a sizzling, lean crispness. It bears the charming name Tablier de sapeur, or Fireman's apron, and is served topped with Tartare Sauce.
Of course, the crème de la crème, despite the inapt description when talking of tripe, is Tripes à la mode de Caen. Its history has its roots in Mediaeval Normandy, and meticulous cooks in the present-day French city stick to every detail of the original recipe. This celebrated and monstrously difficult-to-prepare dish consists of four different types of tripe, parts of calves' feet and hoofs, a lot of garlic, onions, carrots, beef fat, calvados and cider, and a selection of a dozen seasonings. The two main points are that it takes at least 12 hours to cook and that it is best prepared in very large quantities, enough to feed an army.
The Germans, especially in the western parts of former West Germany, contrary to general opinion, also like tripe very much. The best recipe in Rheinland-Pfalz is Saumagen, a paunch stuffed with mushrooms, cheeses, and other offal. In Germany, there are tripe fan clubs and Helmut Kohl, Germany's former Bundeskanzler, is an honorary member of several. The late Hannelore Kohl wrote a cookery book in which she offered a few particularly mouth-watering Saumagen recipes. Kohl, a connoisseur of good food, especially tripe, often took high-ranking foreign statesmen to his favourite restaurant, the Deidesheimer Hof in Mainz. There he always treated them to traditionally prepared tripe and the German tabloids never missed a chance to comment on who ate what, how much, and whether they liked it. Bill Clinton, known for his passion for hamburgers, requested a second helping, which he consumed with pleasure. François Mitterrand was favourably impressed, despite being French. One of the few whose soul and stomach remained cold as stone at the sight of this masterpiece of German gastronomy was Margaret Thatcher. She did not touch her plate despite Helmut Kohl's encouragements accompanied by his characteristic finger-pushing gesture.
Do the Anglo-Saxons really hate tripe?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has ever seen a Mancunian refuse a serving of well-cooked tripe has either come across a rare exception, or an imposter.
Tripe and other kinds of offal have a long and picturesque history in Northern Europe, including the British Isles.
It is said that the distant ancestors of present-day English men and women were greatly impressed by the tripe brought over by William the Conqueror in 1066, but refused to eat it for political reasons. The popularity of tripe re-emerged full strength a few centuries later in Scotland. Having mastered the distillation of whisky, Scottish farmers were vying to invent a suitable appetizer to go with it. And they succeeded. Even moderately enlightened people admit that Scottish Haggis - sheep's stomach stuffed with something resembling black sausage - is the best accompaniment to the golden, smoky liquid made from Scotland's barley. Depending on which part of Scotland you are in, the paunch is called "hood", "king's hood", or "monk's hood". If whisky is the greatest of Scottish inventions, as researchers from Japan to San Francisco claim, then Haggis is comparable at the least to the Theory of Capitalism drafted, predictably, by a Scotsman, Adam Smith.
The national creation of another northern nation, Belgium's Tripes à Djotte, pales in comparison to Haggis, despite the intriguing presence of raw onions.
Haggis and its Belgian counterpart do have something in common: they both have to be cut with a very sharp knife, or otherwise they will disintegrate due to the fragility of their constitution. Eating crumbled Haggis is as ignominious as dining on misshapen meatballs. It is a curious fact that the earliest reports about tripe in the Balkans are related to something similar to Haggis and not to the omnipresent tripe soup of recent times. Centuries ago in his comedy The Clouds Aristophanes advises us through the mouth of Strepsiades:
Why, now the murder's out!
So was I served with a stuffed sheep's paunch I broiled
On Jove's day last, just such a scurvy trick;
Because, forsooth, not dreaming of your thunder,
I never thought to give the rascal vent,
Bounce goes the bag, and covers me all over
With its rich contents of such varied sorts.
Although most Balkan states have preserved some equivalent of the dish described by the ancient Greek, called Kurvavitsa, or blood sausage, in Bulgaria, the basic source of tripe-related passions lies in its more watery version - the soup. Turkey is top of the pops in this respect as the Ottoman tradition there is the strongest. There is hardly a town or a village in that country without a special Işkembe salonu. Besides the soup we know in Bulgaria, they sell a range of other savoury offal like Kelle paça, or brain soup, and Arnavut ciğer, Albanian liver, or fried veal liver. The Turks are usually surprised when a foreigner visits these diners because, like the Bulgarians, they believe they are the only people on earth who can enjoy such dishes. The difference with Bulgaria, besides the size of the portions, is mainly that the Turks drink Ayryan, yoghurt diluted with water and seasoned with salt, while the Bulgarians prefer beer.
Patsas, tripe soup, or Mayiritsa, entrails soup, are extremely popular in the northern parts of Greece. In Salonika, a small tripe eatery on the outskirts of the city is the favourite breakfast place on Saturday morning for the local cultural and social establishment.
This writer's personal grand prix, however, goes to Romania. There is not a single Balkan soup to compare with the Romanian Ciorb· de burtă. There are several major differences between it and the other Balkan tripe soups. The tripe is cut into stripes and does not resemble chopped quilt, as an author's wife once put it. There is more cream than in the thinner Bulgarian and Turkish versions, and around the bowl in which the Romanian specialty is served, a long chilli pepper must be entwined.
Although Europe has given a lot to this world in terms of tripe, almost all the European dishes are relatively predictable and therefore slightly uninteresting. For those seeking strong sensations, I would recommend Asia. Besides the common dog tripe, strongly favoured in some parts of China, Asian cuisine abounds in dishes which will make even the most daring swoon. My personal favourite: dried tripe from Pacific shark.
Address To A Haggis
by Robert Burns
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.
A Good Bulgarian Recipe
It is vital to choose the right kind of tripe. According to Radoslav Dimitrov, the chef of the landmark Checkpoint Charlie Restaurant in Sofia, Bulgarian tripe is good but hard to find. By some perverted economic logic, the highest-quality tripe available in Bulgaria is imported from the United States.
Clean it with a brush and knife, removing the lumps of fat, and boil it in a large pot, changing the water 10 minutes after it comes to the boil. To reduce the smell, add a whole unpeeled onion, a dozen crushed black peppercorns, and salt. The meat will be ready in about two hours. Prepare the bouillon separately, using equal amounts of the tripe stock and beef consommé and adding the same amount of milk. (When preparing the beef stock, simmer it with a stick of celery, two peeled tomatoes, a grated carrot, and some parsley roots.)
Bring the mixture to the boil before serving, and add the tripe cut into large pieces.
There are two key condiments for the grand finale, but unfortunately the soup is often eaten before you manage to prepare them. They are crushed red chilli pepper and garlic sauce. It is of paramount importance that the pepper is extra hot. The sauce is prepared from mashed garlic, salt, water, and vinegar. Add a teaspoonful of it to each serving.
Experts apply a simple test to check the quality of the tripe thus prepared: if your nose starts running halfway through your first bowl, then it is good.
The Mexicans Know Why: Menudo Soup
2 lbs. honeycomb tripe
1 (1 1/2 lb.) veal knuckle
6 c. water
3 med. onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coriander seed
1/4 tsp. dried oregano, crushed
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 (15 oz.) can hominy
Pequin chillies or crushed red pepper
The dish requires a lot of patience but you certainly won't regret the five or so hours of your time you need to prepare it.
Armed with your sharpest knife, cut the tripe into 1" pieces. Place them in a Dutch oven (or any large earthenware pot) together with the veal knuckle, water, onions, garlic, salt, coriander, oregano, and crushed red and black pepper. Cover it tightly with the lid and simmer for three hours until the tripe has a clear, jellylike appearance and the veal is very tender. Take out the veal knuckle from the pot and, when it is cool enough to handle, discard its bones. Chop the meat into small cubes and put it back in the soup. Add the hominy without draining it. Cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes.
Now serve the soup with pequin chillies or crushed red pepper to taste, and garnish with the lime wedges. It should make eight to 10 servings, depending on the size of the bowls.
Widely popular in Mexico, this hearty soup is enjoyed at lunch, supper, and even breakfast. When eaten with plenty of extra hot pepper, it is reputed to cure hangovers -- or cause them, because it is often had with copious amounts of beer or white wine. For those who can't spare the time or are too lazy to cook, canned _Menudo[ital] is available in many large supermarkets and Mexican stores. All you have to do is take the first flight to Mexico City.
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