When I tell people that I’m kicking off a year of ferocious eating and cooking, the question inevitably arises: Well, what’s the most daring thing you’ve tried so far?
Even though I grew up in Southeast Asia — Singapore, to be specific — my extreme food forays have been rather limited. I’ve spent years avoiding offal, even at the best restaurants in New York. (I’ll always love my husband for the time at Per Se when he saved me from my accidental order of calf’s brains by leaning over and quietly suggesting, with a significant amount of urgency in his eyes, that I would *probably* prefer the other entree special.)
And, to great eye-rolling by my dining companions, I tend to pick out
the chopped up pig’s tails that sometimes come with hearty prawn noodle soups in
I’ve not even sampled chicken feet, the relatively common staple of
Chinese dimsums that my Mum slurps up with great gusto,
filling the table with soft sucking sounds as she deftly juggles the
knobby bones with her tongue so she’s extracting the most meat
possible from each bite. (Forget tying a knot with a cherry stem — this should be the test of how good a kisser you are.)
I do have one extreme food notch on my belt that draws groans and
greenish looks whenever I bring it up, however: Spleen sandwiches.
In the heart of Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily, there’s a little place, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, with a fascinating story of standing up to the mob.
also happens to serve a much-lauded version of the local specialty
of spleen sandwiches — sliced cow’s spleen boiled in a hearty
stew, scooped onto a butterflied bun and topped with a generous
sprinkling of grated cacciocavallo, a cheese that’s similar to provolone
that’s ubiquitous in Sicilian dishes.
Never mind that before we went, I
wasn’t entirely sure what a spleen
actually did and my husband had to explain it to me. (Even though I’m
of Asian ethnicity, I was never any good at science. My ninth grade physics teacher would be more than happy to vouch for that, I’m sure.)
Before our trip to Sicily in July 2008,
I’d seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” where he visits Palermo and the mayor of the city takes him to Antica Focacceria San Francesco. I remember thinking, “If it’s good enough for Anthony …” and,
the next thing I know, I’m standing on the street with the Hubbs and a
bunch of friends, passing a spleen sandwich around the circle as we
take mincing bites followed by long, thoughtful pauses.
We knew we’d hit food paydirt because we’d followed a crew of carabinieri (police) into the restaurant, where they’d headed straight for the spleen counter. For 2 Euros (about U.S.$4 at the time), a heaping spleen sandwich for lunch isn’t a bad deal in Palermo, I guess.
not … baaad,” my chef friend Simpson finally said, offering his usual
response to a dish he’s trying to be diplomatic about. He knows how
much I worship (Saint) Anthony Bourdain and how deep my love for all
things Italy is. (I still have a scarf for Inter Milan, the soccer team
I followed with great passion — for the sport as well as the gorgeous
players — as a teen, pinned up in my girlhood bedroom.)
Which is probably what prompted Simpson to add: “It’s actually quite
flavorful, you know.”
The truth is, my love for the entire Italian soccer squad — years past and present
– could not inspire me to ever eat another spleen sandwich. The earthy,
meaty stew is fantastic — all beef stews should taste that complex.
And the mildly sharp shredded cheese is a lovely touch. But the
mouthfeel of the spleen is what gets you — food should not feel dense, rubbery and somewhat impenetrable,
no matter how flavorful it is.
But maybe that’s just the old Cheryl talking — the one who’s partial to the lobster spring rolls and tubs of caviar that populate New York’s fashionable parties. While I grew up on simple, delicious dishes like curried chili crab and stir-fried beef noodles, I’m far more likely to pick steak frites over wok-fried dumplings for dinner these days.
In the year ahead, however, my plan is to travel, eat and learn at the woks of the many “aunties” in my life — from my actual aunts in Singapore to New York friends like Simpson, who continues to teach me the most basic things about Southeast Asian cooking with massive gobs of patience.
The task ahead isn’t easy. For starters, I will have to stop picking
out those pig’s tails. But if my bravery ever falters, I’ll just think
of Saint Anthony.