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Updated May 13, 2017
Braised Beef Cheeks
Braised Beef Cheeks

Arriving in the UK just before Easter, I found myself cooking overtime to feed the kids as they turned up for the long weekend. The lady wife had ordered a wide selection of meat to be delivered to the house just as we arrived, and one of the items was ox cheeks, not something I had ever cooked before. Had I considered how often cattle chew and munch every day of their lives, I would have surmised that this cut of meat would be very tough indeed. As it was, it took me a long time to separate the fat from the meat, and then chop it into bite-sized pieces. Even though I was using a very sharp knife, this was no easy task.

But after it was done, it turned out to have been worth the effort. Using a heavy iron casserole dish, I sautйed the meat with thinly sliced onions and garlic, and then poured in enough dark ale to just cover the meat. A few bay leaves and some rosemary went in next, together with some sea salt and freshly ground pepper. The dish was then brought to a simmer before being transferred with its heavy lid on into the oven that had been heated at a very low setting. In about four hours, the meat was tender and the ale cooked down to a thick, rich sauce. It made a tasty dish when served with fresh sourdough bread, even if I say so myself.

Very often, the cheaper, tougher cuts of meat taste very good when slow-cooked over a low heat. More expensive cuts like fillet of beef (‘undercut’ in Pakistan), while soft and tender, lack flavour. In Britain, so-called nose-to-tail cooking was popularised by Fergus Henderson in his book The Whole Beast. His philosophy about avoiding waste proved to be hugely popular when put into practice in his restaurant, St John.

The idea of eating some parts of an animal such as organs may not appeal to many people but they are worth a try

Basically, Henderson — and many others — advocates using unfashionable parts of an animal such as offal and all the organs. There was a time when ojri, or tripe, was a popular dish in Pakistan. Requiring a lot of cleaning and careful cooking, the dish made from stomach lining has fallen out of favour in well-to-do homes. However it is still popular in Punjab. In Turkey, many specialist restaurants served ‘Iskembe corbasi’, or tripe soup, when I first went there years ago; now, you have to really look for a place that serves the dish.

In Pakistan, we use most bits of animals, ranging from feet to brain. In fact, a good brain masala does it for me every time. The katakat joints will throw in sliced testicles with kidneys on request (as in gurda-kapura). In fact, I still blame my elevated cholesterol levels on this Lahori delicacy when I frequented Abbot Road regularly. But hey, you only live once.

In Britain, few restaurants now have organs on their menus; partly, I suspect, because they really can’t charge much for them as they don’t cost a lot at the butcher’s. My favourite French restaurant in London, Racine, used to serve delicious brain cutlets as a starter, but since it closed a couple of years, I haven’t seen this delicacy on any menu. To be honest, I haven’t tried to cook brain as most of our friends would be hesitant to try it.

And, of course, nihari without brain is like serving daal without tarrka. Most people, especially in the West, turn up their noses at the thought of eating organs, but properly cooked, they have more flavour than many of the more expensive cuts. Sheep’s kidneys, simply sautйed with onions in butter until they are pink inside, are delicious when chopped and served on toast.

So next time you are shopping for meat, do consider picking up off-cuts and organs for a foodie adventure.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017