Offal in Koreatown

There’s not really very much that I won’t eat, or at least that I won’t try. This weekend in Toronto I got to cross one of the long-standing entries off the list of foods I have knowingly ducked: pig intestines, which we call “chitterlings” or “chitlins” around these parts. Offal is not generally a really big part of the standard American diet. Growing up in the Jewish tradition I probably had more than your average kid – Grandma’s chopped liver was great, and I loved stuffed derma and kishka (which are basically simple, salty chicken fat sausages). The textures of some of the organ meats, though, make them hard to deal with if you’re not used to them. Tripe, in particular, I ducked for years; I even avoided it while in Oporto, where it is the city’s specialty dish. It just looks evil, nasty, rippled and spongy. I’d see a plate of tripe and imagine my teeth sinking in and then never being able to get them out. I imagined they’d find me, dead of starvation at the dinner table, a mass of tripe tangled around my teeth. When I finally broke down and tried it, in a bowl of Pho, I enjoyed it – the chewy, springy texture of the tripe was a nice counterpoint to the soft noodles and the crunchy bean sprouts. I still wouldn’t order a big pile of tripe to eat all by itself, but I was pleased to find a dish where I could enjoy it.

Korea House, on Bloor in the middle of the Annex neighborhood, described “soondae” as “pig intestine and sausage,” and it was available in a number of different dishes. You can call soondae “blood sausage,” but that doesn’t really get the point across. Spanish morçilla, for example, is technically a blood sausage, but you don’t really experience the casing as an essential component of the dish, the way you do with soondae. Remembering my pho experience, I decided that this would be where I’d get chitterlings off of my “will not try” list. Korean soups are notoriously spicy and flavorful, and I figured that if anything could make pig intestine edible, hot pepper could; armed with that knowledge, I ordered soondae guk, a spicy stew. The waitress looked at me suspiciously. “You know soondae guk?” I nodded confidently, hoping to project the attitude that I eat it all the time. She padded away and, soon brought, along with the inevitable procession of small side dishes, my bowl of spicy offal soup.

Pig intestine is like tripe, only more so. In terms of texture it is rubbery and chewy, just like tripe, but also a bit thicker, so eating it is a bit like eating gristle. The taste was very neutral, and not offensive at all – basically, it just tasted like the spicy pepper broth it was in. What was disconcerting was the smell. I was prepared for it to smell like rotting flesh, or to have a sulfurous odor, or a sickly sweet bloody odor. It smelled like none of these things.

It smelled like vulcanized rubber. It smelled like a bicycle tire.

It didn’t smell somewhat like a bicycle tire. It wasn’t redolent of a bicycle tire. It didn’t suggest the odor of a bicycle tire. If you rubbed a bicycle tire with sandpaper and held it up to your nose, that’s exactly what this smelled like.

So that’s not so offensive that one loses one’s lunch and stops eating, especially since, as I said, it felt and tasted just fine. It was just confusing. I continued eating the soup with a quizzical expression on my face. The sausage in the soup tasted more like I expected. It was a livery, sulfurous mass that contained mysterious chunks and bubbles of nameless flesh that we in wealthier countries typically throw away when cooking for people we love. Since I’ve eaten tapas in Madrid, where they pride themselves in discovering new and innovative uses for body parts previously believed to be indigestible, this was nothing terribly new. (I have a fantasy of someday encountering a tapas bar that has figured out a way to serve fried fur and hair, chased by a jigger of sweet homemade vermouth). The sausage was loose and fell apart in the soup into its component lumps, so eating was an exercise in trying to balance a lump of sausage meat with a curl of intestine, along with some spicy liquid and perhaps an onion or two in the spoon, and slorping it down in one mouthful.

chitty

“Chitty the Chitterling”

It was pretty good. There’s enough other things on the typical Korean menu that I can’t see myself gravitating to the soon dae guk every time, but if you’re looking to overcome your fear of chitterlings and try something new, this is a good way to do it.

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