Here is a list, off the top of my head, of textures that many eaters dislike: gooey, slimy, rubbery, and gelatinous.
A gooey consistency may be prized in the center of a molten chocolate cake, but in the context of beef tendon that has been braised until it is soft and sticky, this texture appeals to a much smaller audience. For slimy, consider birds' nest soup. Slivers of nest, essentially made from the birds' saliva, are mucilaginous when suspended in a starch-thickened broth. Rubbery foods, like jellyfish, are somewhat resilient or elastic to the bite. Gelatinous textures are abundant: well-stewed pig's foot, any form of aspic, and Jell-o are all common and range in popularity. And lastly, some foods are combinations of the textures: sea cucumber, for instance, is both gelatinous and rubbery, with a kind of crispness on the surface.
Tripe is another item that defies exact categorization. Describing it is even more complicated by the discrete textures of the cow's four stomach chambers. "Chewy" or "rubbery" may be the first adjectives that come to mind, yet these words could just as well apply to a Tootsie Roll or piece of taffy.
Tripe is more than just an exercise for your molars; when chewed carefully, there is a stringy quality to its layers that becomes more apparent with each bite. The center of a well-stewed piece of tripe can also be slightly gooey, oozing with just a bit of the meaty broth in which it has been cooking.
So far I've just been talking about the texture of tripe, but its taste is worth mentioning as well. In too many cookbooks I've seen tripe described as bland--this is unfair, I think, for the same reason that calling white rice "tasteless" is silly. Just as a pot of good-quality rice can be mildly sweet or floral, tripe is subtle yet distinctively meaty. Slightly gamey, tripe is often disliked because the gaminess is not appropriately countered with pungent seasonings or a lengthy cooking time.
Menudo, a spicy tripe stew from Mexico, solves both pitfalls with a long simmering and a hearty infusion of the smooth-skinned, dried chiles of Mexico, California, or New Mexico. Toasted, soaked, and blended into the broth, the chiles provide a pungent backdrop to the assertive texture and flavor of the tripe. Honeycomb tripe, the most geometrically beautiful of all four stomachs, is a nice choice for menudo due to its tenderness and comparatively shorter cooking time. The honeycomb comes from the second stomach, or the reticulum. After the grass has passed through the reticulum, the cow will return the cud to its mouth for a more thorough chewing before sending it to the omasum, or the third chamber. (Also called leaf tripe, omasum is the most common type of tripe offered in Chinese restaurants, often as a steamed dish during dim sum.)
As an extra precaution to remove overtly gamey flavors, the tripe is scrubbed and parboiled before it is placed into the stew. Provided that you don't have any minuscule cuts on your fingers, scrubbing the tripe with salt and lime juice is an entertaining activity in itself. Like removing a stain from an item of clothing, I use a scrubbing motion to work the salt and lime into the hexagonal weave of the tripe. Split pigs' feet are used in the stew for body and flavor; prior to adding the chiles, the broth of tripe and trotters will be a beautiful milky white from the marrow of the bones.
The recipe here calls for chiles cascabeles norteño, which are very round, smooth-skinned, dark red chiles. However, certain types of dried red chiles of medium spiciness, generally from California or New Mexico, also work well. (I used some called chile guajillo, which were larger but also smooth-skinned and dark red.) To sop up the flavorful broth of the menudo, serve the soup with freshly-made or high-quality store-bought tortillas.
Menudo Rojo (Red-Chile Tripe Soup)
Adapted from Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless.
- For the soup
- 2 pounds beef honeycomb tripe
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 large lime
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 4 medium (about 1.3 ounces total) dried chiles cascabeles norteño, or California/ New Mexico chiles, stemmed, seeded, and deveined
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, freshly ground
- 1 teaspoon salt
- For the condiments
- Chopped onion
- Dried oregano
To prepare the tripe: Wash the tripe thoroughly in warm water. Place it into a large bowl, sprinkle with the lime juice and salt, and scrub vigorously. Let stand 30 minutes; then wash the tripe again in warm water.
Slice the tripe into small pieces, approximately 2 inches in length by 1/2-inch wide. Place the tripe in a large stockpot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then drain.
Add tripe and 3 quarts water. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium low. Add garlic, onion, and oregano. Partially cover and simmer until tripe is very tender, 2 to 3 hours.
To start the chile infusion: During the last half hour of simmering, heat a heavy skillet. Tear the chiles into pieces and toast them for a few seconds on each side, until they blister and darken slightly. Place the pieces in a bowl and submerge in boiling water. Cover with a lid and soak for 30 minutes.
Drain the chiles in the bowl and place them into a blender with the remaining cloves of garlic and the ground cumin. Add a ladle of the simmering broth, and blend until smooth. Add the chile-broth back into the soup, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Serve the piping-hot soup with the condiments, to be used according to personal taste.