"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."Reuse content