The Sheep-Brain Curry
As a child, I was a notoriously fussy eater. My catchphrase as a four-year-old, “There’s a little bit of black in it,” was stubbornly repeated when rejecting any food that was well-cooked, new, mixed up with something else or prepared with herbs or seasoning – so just about everything interesting really… (Parents of fussy children, take heart – I grew out of it, developed a taste for strong and exciting flavours, and now pride myself on being an extraordinarily hearty and adventurous eater.)
My infinitely patient parents persevered and eventually won through, though not every battle can have been an easy one: I remember the ‘escargots showdown’ when on holiday in France, that resulted in me having a disproportionately dramatic tantrum in a small restaurant. I did actually try a snail in the end and remember finding the taste quite inoffensive, but the chewy texture simply appalling. I think I sobbed and spat it out on the table… (belated apologies to my long-suffering Mum and Dad). Anyhow, our tastes change as we grow older and so, every once in a while, I would try something I had previously disliked only to find it was in fact utterly delicious. I love escargots now and will gladly gobble them down with a good glass of French wine, soaking up the garlic butter with soft, fluffy bread.
And so we go from snails to brains… For an average English girl raised on Sunday roasts, mashed potatoes, Heinz Baked Beans and garden vegetables, the sheer concept of eating something’s brain is a disconcerting one. Perhaps partly because when we use the word brain it’s almost always to do with intelligence or thinking, in a very human context (‘brain-storm’, ‘brain drain’, ‘all brawn and no brains’, ‘she’s very brainy’, ‘he’s got cricket on the brain’, ‘do you mind if I pick your brain?’, ‘I’ve been racking my brain all day’ etc…). But here I am, living in the Middle East, and there are plenty of people living in this part of the world who consider goat and sheep brain to be a delicacy. So, I plucked up the courage to try it. After all, what’s the point in living abroad if you’re going to stay in a safe little expat bubble?
The Pakistani restaurant we went to is in bustling Satwa – one of the louder, livelier, more interesting bits of Dubai – bright with neon lights and beeping, double-parked cars. The streets are packed with people and the restaurant kitchens open onto the pavements so the wonderful cooking smells – grilled meat, hot bread and spices – drift enticingly in the cool evening air. We found our friends at the restaurant, already seated at a plastic picnic table. I was expecting to see goat-brain curry on the menu, and was mildly and inexplicably disappointed to discover it was actually sheep. I know goat meat isn’t likely to spring to mind when one fancies something really tasty – I would expect it to be a bit stringy and, well, goaty – with that ripe, farmy, animally smell that strong goat’s cheese has. Nevertheless, there was no goat available – it was sheep brain or nothing. I had set my heart on brain (that’s a weird arrangement of words / bodily organs, isn’t it) and I was determined to have it, be it caprine or ovine.
As far as I am aware, I have never previously eaten anything’s brain (although I have eaten a lot of cheap beef and onion pies in the past and if those weren’t at least 60% sheep-brain / horse-meat / road-kill, I’m a duchess) so I was a little apprehensive. I think I was afraid it would still be brain-shaped… (see my photograph from last week’s post. The idea of slicing into one of those frontal lobes would definitely have been a bit much for me…) But I was pleasantly surprised: it looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Particularly if you tell yourself it’s actually a minced chicken or egg curry (it’s all in the mind, you know). When I picked up the first forkful I thought I was going to have to shout “Raaaaargh!!” in order to stop myself thinking about it and just put it in my mouth (like a warrior charging into battle or something), but I managed to control myself, and in it went. It was a bit like the escargot incident (although you’ll be pleased to know I didn’t spit it out on the plastic picnic table): the taste was fine, but the texture was quite upsetting. It tasted a little like chicken liver – smooth and mild with that subtle tang of iron. I mostly tasted the spices I suppose – ginger, turmeric and a lively amount of chilli; it was nice – offally good really (sorry). But the texture was unnervingly creamy and soft. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word negatively before, but I can’t think of a better one: it was silky. Eerily silky. Like a limp, moist handshake. Or a shaved cat. Or the soft voice of a psychopath. As I chewed it, there was simply nothing in the way of healthy, meaty resistance. I managed to eat a fair amount of it in the end, mixing it in mouthfuls with big chunks of chicken, buttery paratha and a delicious tarka daal (the lentils very successfully disguised the soft texture of the brain). And, strangely enough, I felt like I had achieved something.
To be honest, the worst of it came later. Oh it stayed down, don’t worry about that. But a brain burp is a dreadful thing: the ghost of silky, spicy cerebellum haunting you as you try to get on with your evening and enjoy a nice cocktail or two (I bet Hannibal Lecter never had that problem). Heavens but that brain repeated on me. Then I discovered that I had a bit of it stuck in my teeth. I panicked. “I’ve got a bit of brain stuck in my teeth!” I whispered urgently to my husband, noticing that I sounded like an oddly hygiene-conscious zombie. He bought me another drink and I managed to wash the brain completely away with a strawberry margarita. Tequila often has that effect on the brain, I’ve found.
So all’s well that ends well. I had met the brain challenge, head on, and I had not been found wanting. Are you tempted? Have a look at this Indian cooking blog for a curried goat-brain recipe: http://simplyspicy.blogspot.ae/2006/12/brain-fry.html And this BBC page features a buyer’s guide to sourcing good-quality brain in the UK (do let our top universities know if you find any – ho ho – http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/brain). Warning: the instructions for preparation are not for the faint-hearted; they utilise one of the most upsetting words in the English language: membrane (shudder). Eating brain is one thing, but preparing it myself? I don’t think so. In some ways I’m still a bit of a squeamish four-year-old…
[Apologies to my vegetarian readers for another horribly carnivorous post. I promise I’ll write about something more pleasant next week…]
Fancy trying brain curry? What’s the weirdest or most unnerving food you’ve ever eaten?