Cow brain is surprisingly creamy. I expected a texture similar to fish or squid, but it spreads across the roof of your mouth like a warm scoop of Greek yogurt with a mashed-pea, chalky finish. It’s a bit like uni, but less expensive.
It was sitting in a bowl of coconut milk and spices. Alone I don’t think I could stomach it. But the sauce was quite good. I am suspicious, though, of things that must be dressed up because they cannot stand on their own. When I tried fresh-water snake in Shanghai, for instance, each pork-spare-rib sized piece was deep fried and served with a red-chili garnish. There was very little meat on each cut, but the man sitting across from me kept reaching for more. He later proclaimed that he really likes fresh-water snake. Perhaps he’d say the same of fried Twinkies.
With exception to sashimi, the one time I’ve eaten part of an animal in its most unadulterated post-mortem state was when I ate a goat’s heart in Rajasthan, India.
I was in the desert, confronted by miles of yellow sand and an occasional weed jutting up from the ground like two outstretched arms after a long slumber. It was dusk.
A goat had just been killed by two of the Bedouins with whom I’d been traveling. One held the goat down while the other cut its throat. They proceeded to dismantle the animal. This was all done on a small blanket, on the sun-colored sand, wind blowing just enough to remind you it’s there.
The strips of meat that were pulled from the body would soon see a flame and then become the main ingredient in a stew. But the heart, which had been beating 30 minutes ago, was special. It was a prize. And as their guest, it was offered to me.
I held it in my right hand. It was warm. Uncooked. Its viscous blood coating the sides of my fingers. I didn’t want to eat it. Oh how I wish it could’ve sat in coconut milk and spices, like the cow brain . . . or have been deep fried like the water snake.
Instead, there it was. Undressed. In my hand. I gripped it like I was trying to assess its weight, almost like a pitcher holding a rosin bag as he stands on the mound, trying to figure out what to throw next.
I was not steady. Thick blood rivulets plopped from the heart and onto the sand canvas beneath me, looking like a yellow and crimson Jackson Pollock.
I held it up to my mouth. At that angle, the blood began to creep past the meaty part of my palm and onto my wrist. As it greeted my forearm, it was time to make a decision. Go big or go home. I opened my mouth and thrust the heart deep into me, like I would a jelly donut. My jaws clenched. The thick warm blood—the taste of mercury—shot through my mouth and coated my throat. Then my teeth, instinctively, sawed back and forth through the ventricles. I didn’t know the inside of a heart was so tough, so I cut with my teeth and pulled with my hand until the heart broke free. With a full-body Popeye-esque thrust, I tipped my head back to jerk the heart down my throat and into a place I could soon forget.
Then, with blood smeared about my face, I offered the heart, now an oblong crescent shape, to my Bedouin hosts.
They accepted, greedily devouring what remained.
Few things can stand on their own. Naked. Native. Proud. Fruit can pull this off. The purple mangosteen, for instance, a fruit readily available in Jakarta, is perfect. Sweet like a tangerine but not tart. You don’t wince. You smile with your eyes. Most foods, though, seem reliant upon spices, sauces, “preparation.” Perhaps it’s our imagination that does it: what could this taste like? Perhaps it’s the chef blushing in the kitchen, realizing that not every part of the animal should be eaten. Even wildebeests and vultures, after all, leave parts of a zebra carcass untouched.
It is Ramadan. Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Over 12% of the world’s Muslims live here, and about 100 of them are sitting to my left and to my right on short, green plastic chairs, in a street-side restaurant with a roof made of stretched-tarp. They stare at their food, waiting for the clock to strike 6:00 p.m. Many awoke early to eat breakfast at 4:00 a.m., and then went without food and water for the last 14 hours. It is oppressively hot and humid, especially with all of these hungry bodies packed into a room that traps heat, testing everyone in their last few minutes of fasting. Everyone but me. I am on a food tour. During Ramadan. So I begin with the soup, and I move onto the Tempe Bacem. All but one person eyes me with contempt. It doesn’t matter that I’m the infidel. What matters is that everyone is hungry. And I’m eating. (There was one other person, a Muslim man who seemed in his early 60s, who kept sneaking little pinches of white rice into his mouth, refusing to chew so that his secret might be safe.) I’m a fan of sacrifice, but in a world where few ever remove their mask, I love that guy.
Here’s a virtual stroll through my Jakarta food tour:
(If a photo is not captioned, then I cannot recall the food’s name. Know, though, that if the photo is featured here—with exception to the cow brain—then it was tasty.)
Here’s my street-level view from a chair near the fried rice stand:
If you find yourself in Jakarta, consider a food tour. It’d be wise, though, to make sure it’s a walking tour (Jakarta has a fearsome reputation for traffic and traffic jams).
Food Tour: Jakarta Walking Tour (ask for Vera)