Fancy some brain ravioli?

Brain dishes are popping up in American restaurants, along with innards, tongues and heads

NEW YORK • When Mario Batali opened his Italian restaurant Babbo in 1998 in New York, the menu included attention-getting dishes such as calf's brain francobolli (small Tuscan ravioli).

It was a dish that mixed the total comfort of a beloved pasta with an eat-on-a-dare kind of filling that has the texture of scrambled eggs.

It became a mainstay on the menu and a favourite of regular diners.

Batali was not the first chef in America to feature an innards dish to challenge diners.

Italian grandmothers have been cooking with non-muscle meats, from tripe to spleen, for centuries.

But he was one of offal's highestprofile champions and stocked Babbo's fine-dining menu with adventurous dishes such as beef cheek ravioli and lamb's tongue vinaigrette.

His brain ravioli was followed by monumental dishes such as the pig's head special at Spotted Pig (in honour of British chef Fergus Henderson, pioneer of nose-to-tail eating) and an onslaught of marrow bones that took over French brasserie tables countrywide.

Now, if not quite ubiquitous, brain dishes are popping up in many places in the United States - and chefs report they are received with feverish enthusiasm. 

It is a no-brainer then that chefs have seized on the moment to whip up even more exotic foodie adventures.

In the traditional steak-loving town of Houston, award-winning chef Chris Shepherd is planning to serve duck heart bolognese and an offal-packed terrine at his soon-toopen One Fifth Romance Languages early next month.

He said: "The times have changed. People are now accustomed to eating chicken liver mousse and foie gras, and our customers are excited to try new things."

Also in vogue are tripe, headcheese (a terrine assembled with boiled pieces of meat from the head of an animal) and scrapple (made by boiling innards, secondary cuts, head and feet together for hours, then shredding and seasoning the cooked organs).

America's more adventurous eating habits owe a fair amount to its most popular culinary travellers.

Credit the illustrious Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown series - in its ninth season - which takes viewers around the world to watch him snack on chicken rice with additional gizzards.

Andrew Zimmern traverses the globe too with his show Bizarre Foods, seeking out dishes such as brain sandwiches.

He found one in St Louis.

One reason offal is popular around the world is its cheaper price and restaurateurs know that too.

One of its biggest proponents in the US has been Chris Cosentino, author of cookbook Offal Good and chef at Cockscomb in San Francisco, which he named for an underused part of the bird. He set the scene in the book's introduction: "I've spent two decades learning about, cooking and getting creative with offal. It's become my signature as a chef."

He also credits the public's increasingly varied vacation itineraries to the popularity of offal.

"The more people travel around the world, the more you'll see an influence of other cultures. 

"When people come back from Japan, they talk about two things: Tsukiji fish market and meat on a stick - the fact that they ate skewered chicken hearts, and they were delicious. And every part of the eel, the head, the bones.

"Or they went to Argentina and had cow's udder. Or to Florence and had a spleen sandwich.

"They come back and say, Why can't I have that here? They've stopped putting their nose up at everything."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Fancy some brain ravioli?'. Print Edition | Subscribe