All eyes on the prize

One culture's choicest morsel is another's cat food, but how do you tell?
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The Independent Culture
"HOUSE SPECIAL!" announced the Japanese restaurateur with pride, bearing a giant ceramic bowl in which lay a giant fish-head awash in light, soupy juices. It was as if I had never tasted fish before. It tasted not only of the sea, but as if it were still in it; delicate yet forceful, single-minded yet complex. My chopsticks thrashed around the bowl like piranhas, stripping off the rich, gelatinous cheek and the juicy flesh around the severed neck. The owner was horrified. Instead of taking away what was left in the bowl, he stared down in utter bewilderment.

"But you've left the best bit!" he said. Best bit? All that was left was a little connective tissue, a few bones and one rather large eye. I entered my own private suspense movie: cut from my appalled expression to Medium Close-Up fish-eye. Cut back to my face, but closer, then back to Extreme Close-Up fish-eye, in which you can see the reflection of my appalled expression. "Tastes just like oyster, only better," said the restaurateur. I picked up the eye in my chopsticks and placed it in my mouth. After about a hundred years, I swallowed, and discovered that it did indeed taste like an oyster. I never left the best bit again. But how many best bits had I unknowingly left behind out of unwillingness or ignorance, until then?

I made a fool of myself over my very first Shanghai hairy crab in Hong Kong one winter. Having picked out the sweet, succulent, ginger-fragrant flesh, I put down my chopsticks. My host blushed for me, before pointing to the roe-laden head, explaining that it was the eggs that made the crab such a delicacy. "Tastes just like scrambled eggs, only better," he said. And of course he was right. He then pointed to my discarded prawn heads from a delightful dish of prawns steamed in their shells. "But you've left the best bit," he said, as he picked up one of the heads and sucked like a vacuum cleaner.

The trouble is, one culture's best bit is another's garbage. In Spain, pigs' ears are cooked in a delicious, addictive casserole with pigs' trotters and chorizo sausages. In other countries, you can't even buy a pig's head complete with ears. In Peking, duck feet are deboned and tossed in a salad with cucumbers and yellow mustard sauce, while in Canton, steamed and braised chicken feet are the juiciest stars of the dim sum trolleys. In a Greek home, one is honoured to be served the head of the spit-roasted lamb, especially if it comes complete with tongue and brains. Nor would a Greek home throw out the stems and leaves of the beetroot, but simply treat them as a beautiful vegetable that requires a little steaming and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice while still warm.

There are some best bits we are all aware of; like the curl of orange coral on a sea scallop, the fatty tail of a grill-scorched lamb chop, and the luscious bone marrow in osso bucco, far more exciting than the dull meat clinging to the bone. I always try the rind of a white mould cheese such as Brie. If not ammoniacal, it gives me the wonderfully peculiar feeling of biting into cumulus clouds. Even inedible rinds, such as the boot-leather rind of a Parmigiano Reggiano, is never wasted in Italy, but tossed into the makings of a fine minestrone soup, where it softens over the long cooking and leaves its ineffably fine flavour.

Determined never to leave the best bit, I now curi-ously eye any old fish-tail, potato peelings, or leftover egg-shells, just in case I'm missing out. My finest moment came at the end of a dish of deer penis in China - something that I'm sure even the deer would con-sider their best bits. Left on the plate was a perfect little sea horse, about the length of my little finger. "You left the best bit," I said to my fellow diners, as I popped it into my mouth and crunched. They looked aghast. "But that was the garnish," they cried. "Ah," I said, recovering immediately. "Tastes just like decoration, only better."