Offal is the collective term for the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. Internal organs include the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, tongue, spleen and brain; entrails refer to the various parts of the gastrointestinal system which includes the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine. A third category of offal which falls under neither internal organs nor entrails includes the animals' extremities like the feet, ears, snout, eyes, tail and skin.
In Southeast Asia,... all these are cooked as food; not as exotic nor gourmet fare but as everyday food. Below is an illustrated list which is by no means comprehensive but which gives a good idea of just how vast the world of offal cooking is.
01 of 09
Would you be too surprised to learn that the delicacy known as head cheese is no cheese at all but a cold meat dish made with the various parts of an animal's head? Head cheese originated in Europe, found its way to Asia and, in Vietnam, sliced head cheese made with pig's head parts is one of the most beloved filling for banh mi sandwiches.
And just which parts of a pig's head is eaten in Southeast Asia? Everything except the bones. The cheeks, snout, brain, ears and tongue are all... delicious! The eyes are also eaten although I've never seen them served whole.
In the Philippines, a whole pig's head boiled, cooled and deep fried is called crispy ulo. A whole pig's head slowly roasted is lechon ulo.
02 of 09
Beef and pork tongue are both eaten in Southeast Asia. The butcher trims the tongue and discards the small bones and cartilages. The rest is done in the kitchen.
To clean the tongue, it is rubbed with a mixture of vinegar and rock salt then the surface is scraped with a knife. The process is repeated several times until all the sliminess has been removed.
Once clean, the tongue is boiled until tender. The tough outer skin of the beef tongue is then easily peeled off. The skin of the pork tongue is... scraped with a knife.
03 of 09
It was my father who taught me how to appreciate animal brain. He'd carefully peel off the membrane that covered it and remove as much of the veins as he could without breaking the creamy mass. He'd slice the cleaned brain, dip it in seasoned beaten eggs and fry the slices. Oh, how I loved it!
It was also my father who taught me how to crack open a cooked chicken's head, locate the brain and scoop it out in one piece. I'd pop the whole thing in my mouth and savor the rich... creaminess.
As a result, I grew up unafraid to try other dishes made with animal brain.
04 of 09
The intestines of the cow, pig, goat and chicken are all part of Southeast Asian cooking. If you think that's too "exotic" to try, think of the sausages you eat for breakfast and know that natural sausage casing is the skin of animal intestine.
To clean large intestines, water is forced through the cavity to flush out everything that is not meant to be eaten. Smaller intestines that are difficult to clean that way are pushed inside out to invert and expose the interior and scraped.... It's quite something watching it done. With a long skewer, one end is pushed through the length of the intestine until it goes all the way to the opposite end. It is then pulled so that the inside layer is exposed. And all that is done without tearing the intestines.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Tripe consists of three chambers of the stomach of a cow. Which chamber the tripe comes from determines its texture and market name. In the photo, the honeycomb tripe (left, front) comes from the reticulum; the the smooth or blanket tripe (left and right, back) is from the rumen; and the book or leaf tripe (right, front) is from the omasum.
All three kinds of tripe are cooked in Southeast Asia. The dish determines which tripe is to be used. Both the honeycomb and blanket tripes are grilled, added... to soups or cooked as stews. The popular ginger-scallion tripe dim sum in Chinese restaurants is made with leaf tripe.
06 of 09
Beef, pork, chicken and duck livers are the only ones I have personally eaten and if I have to choose which has the best flavor and mouth feel, I wouldn't be able to. They may all be liver but they don't hit the taste buds and the palate in quite the same way. Beef liver is very rich, pork liver is more textured, chicken liver is creamy and duck liver is what I'd consider the most funky.
There are Southeast Asian dishes where liver is the main ingredient. In other cases, cooked livers... are mashed to thicken and flavor the sauce of stews. Liver can also be cut into small pieces and grilled.
07 of 09
Many say that the best kare-kare (a Filipino beef and vegetables stew in peanut sauce) is cooked with ox tail. I find that to be only partially true. Ox tail kare-kare is the best but only when the ox tail is cooked with the skin. Simmered for long hours, the ox tail skin turns gelatinous and creates a broth that is both rich and dense. The tendons interspersed with the dark meat gives the meat a slightly sticky texture that one has to experience to understand.
In the West, ox tail is often sold... without the skin.
08 of 09
A Fowl's Gizzard, Neck, Heart and Liver
Leaving behind the large animals, let's go to the offal of birds. When buying a whole chicken, duck, goose or turkey, we sometimes find tucked in the cavity a small packet that contains the bird's offal. Often, the packet includes the neck, liver, gizzard and heart. Collectively, they are called giblet.
The liver is, of course, deliciously edible; so is the gizzard. The gizzard takes much longer to cook than the delicate liver. The heart cooks just a little longer than the liver.
In the... West, the fowl's giblet is often cooked as the base of a gravy.
In Southeast Asia, the liver and gizzard are cooked as the main ingredients (rather than as mere accessories) of many dishes. They are popular as satay and they are also often found in stir fries.
Chicken necks (sometimes, with the heads) are sold by the kilo and they are many cooks' choice for making chicken broth.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
It's impossible to talk about offal without mentioning blood. In Southeast Asia, freshly collected blood from a newly slaughtered animal is used both in liquid and coagulated form.
In the photo (partly hidden by the skewered chicken intestines) taken in a suburb in the Philippines, coagulated cow's blood is boiled, cut into pieces and threaded with bamboo skewers before they go on the grill.
In Vietnam, there's tiet canh, a raw blood dish; bun bo hue, a noodle soup served with cubes of coagulated blood; and don huyet, a blood sausage.
In Thailand, a pork soup called tom lued moo comes with cubes of coagulated pork blood. A sticky rice congee with coagulated chicken blood is khao man gai.