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The off-cuts: A tale of the tongue

08/02/2013 10:00 AM

08/02/2013 10:20 AM

Taste is one of the singular driving forces that humans seek out when searching for food.

Indeed, sustenance and survival are scientific reasons for eating, but human evolution follows the path of taste through history. We hunted and gathered. We made fire to make that which we hunted and gathered delicious.

Humanity imbued taste with such unparalleled value that salt and spices became currency throughout the world.

Today the global economy is made up of flavors as much as it is finances. Food is grown, produced and transported around the planet every day to satiate our ever expanding tastes.

At the junction of this biological and philosophical tale of tastes is the tongue. It is the map by which we navigate flavor and a central tool in how we communicate and consume.

Yet in the modern world, the tongue, like other offal, has somehow fallen out of favor as food in many of our present gastronomic institutions.

Food can evolve yet again with an eye towards the tastes of the past to remind us of what can be a delicious way to honor all parts of the animal.

Tongue has a long history in the cuisines of the world. Fresh and healthy food was not always as readily available as it is today where anyone with $20 has access to a “Styrofoam and shrink wrap” meat selection at the local super market.

Meats and proteins in particular have traditionally been prized for their flavor as well as nutritional value. People sought to use every piece of an animal to maximize the value of their commodity while consumers bought and cooked accordingly.

Offal, or the “off cuts” have always carried less value than leaner standard cuts. It is why poorer sections of societies often feature offal prominently in their cooking. Creative and delicious dishes are often born of this necessity.

Tongue is one of the most prized parts of offal due to its luscious, full flavor and meaty yet slightly springy, giving texture. While it is used constantly by all animals, the tongue has a good bit of fat throughout its muscle fibers.

Every animal is different as are their tongues. A good thing to keep in mind is that as the animal goes, so too goes their tongue. This is true of their size as well as their taste.

Beef tongue is the largest of conventionally sold animal tongues and can be as big as three to five pounds. It is the tongue you are most likely to encounter, but pork, veal and even fowl tongues also have a delicious place in spectrum of flavors.

Beef tongue is a common and tasty taco filling in authentic Mexican restaurants — not the “yellow cheese” Tex-Mex establishments that dot the American suburban landscape.

It has also long been a staple of Italian, Eastern European and Jewish cuisines, where it is commonly cured or simply boiled and featured in everything from roasts to sandwiches.

Cooking a tongue is not as daunting as it might seem, though it does require the virtues of patience and a small manner of labor. As I said before, tongue contains a good deal of fat and tissues under its harder exterior.

Because of this, tongue requires a long cooking time — around three hours for beef tongue — and is best suited to a wet cooking application such as simmering.

This helps to break down the intramuscular fat and tissues slowly, rendering the meat succulently tender and almost effervescently juicy.

After the long cook, the rough outer skin can be peeled off and any gristly or veiny, less desirable bits near the base of the tongue can be trimmed away. The tongue can is then ready to be sliced thinly, grilled, roasted or utilized in a variety of delectable ways.

The next time you happen upon tongue in a restaurant, or even better in your favorite stockpot at home, I implore you to embrace the experience.

Address it with aplomb and an adventurous spirit, for the joys of tongue are many and enchanting indeed.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.

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