The word tripe has two meanings. It’s either “the rubbery lining of the stomach of cattle . . . used as food,” or “something of no value, rubbish.” To many people, these descriptions are still one and the same..
The tripe we encounter at the butcher shop or, in some neighborhoods, the supermarket, usually comes from the second (and most gourmet) of a cow’s four stomach chambers. It has an intricate, ruffly texture that gives it the classification, “honeycomb.” The delicacy has made its way into the cuisines of most countries you can think of, including Ireland and India; Greeks and Bulgarians take it for granted as a hangover cure; and the most famous tripe dishes come from Mexico (a spicy soup unfortunately called Menudo, making tripe puns all too easy), and Vietnam (the noodle soup, Pho).
But New Yorkers are most likely to encounter tripe at an Italian restaurant or a Cuban or Dominican one—it generally receives either fancy treatment at high prices, or humble treatment at rock-bottom prices. Regardless, the preparation is very similar. Tripe has been cooked for at least 12 hours before it’s sold, and most recipes call for an hour or two more boiling before slicing and sautéing or braising. This is the crucial part, because the other ingredients in the pan will impart flavor to the tripe. Though most people who dislike the stuff object to its texture, tripe’s greatest offense could be blandness. Its mellow taste goes best with strong, earthy flavors, and can stand up to a bit of heat, too. It is almost always judged on its tenderness.
Since the weather is calling for hearty eating, we ventured out for a little comparative tripe tasting. How different are the $12 appetizer and the $4.25 entrée, really?
The Italian restaurant, Peasant, has mastered tripe in the Florentine style, which is a simple braise (at Peasant, it comes in a hot terracotta dish straight from a wood-burning oven.) The tripe is cooked in a tangy, slightly spicy tomato sauce with plenty of rosemary and a little Parmigiano melted on top. And yes, it’s tender! But let’s be careful—this is a relative term. If you love filet mignon and hate flank steak, it’s not going to seem tender to you, but it is pretty perfect if you like octopus. Neither octopus nor tripe should be chewy in the sense that excessive molar-power is required, but both will offer some resistance, and should. Great tripe, especially the honeycomb variety, is slightly spongy, in the most delightful way.
Sucelt Coffee Shop, a tiny, constantly packed lunch institution on 14th street, makes two types of tripe soup every day, although the menu simply lists, “Tripe Soup,” at $4.25. For the sake of comparison, we went with the simpler version, which is Colombian (the Puerto Rican version features pig’s feet, which is a whole other article). The big, sloppy bowl—filled with salty broth and pieces of tripe, pork, carrot and potato just falling apart, and peas—was incredibly satisfying. The tripe was softer here than at Peasant—overcooked, really, but had soaked up so much flavor it was seemed perfect. The presentation was humble, the prep work was homey (the various ingredients ranged considerably in size), but the soup was something you could easily become attached to, especially when the woman who hands it to you says, “Here you go, my dear.”