The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Bone marrow, delicious and underrated
We like to divide the world into vegetarians and non-vegetarians. But of course it is not so simple. What about people who won’t eat eggs saying that they are non vegetarian foods but will happily drink milk? In the West, there is at least a degree of consistency: vegans won’t eat any animal product including milk.
But in the West, things get complicated; there are many so-called vegetarians who eat fish. Why? Well, because fish is not meat. There are others (like Phoebe in an episode of Friends) who won’t eat anything that has a face. So some vegetarians say yes to oysters and scallops and no to prawns.
And even among non-vegetarians, there are things that most Indians will not eat. Nearly everyone I know is horrified when I tell them that Nepalis make a papad from fried blood or that black pudding is not a dessert but a sausage made with blood.
I know people who love fish but feel uncomfortable if the fish is served whole, appearing to stare accusingly at diners as if it is blaming them for having had it murdered for their delight.
Though I am a good Gujarati, I was brought up a non-vegetarian since birth. Even so, there are things I will not eat. I won’t eat any kind of offal: no brains, no liver, no kidneys, no hearts, no testicles, no tripe and so on.
At first I thought it was some Gujarati gene asserting itself (do you really want to eat the lining of sheep’s stomach?) and avoided anything that sounded a bit yucky. Bit by bit though, I have overcome some of my prejudices. The belly of a fish can be more delicious than it sounds as anyone who has had toro sashimi will tell you. Just because you don’t like liver (which I hate) it does not follow that you won’t enjoy foie gras (made from duck or goose liver).
But, a strong organ meat taste still remains a no-no for me. Last month, my friend Sameer Sain, a man who has been everywhere in the world and eaten everything worth eating, took me to lunch at Bombay Canteen, a restaurant we both like. Sameer made me try a brain dish that he thought was fabulous and we then went on to the gurda kapura (which, I think, is testicles; but I don’t really want to know!) which Sameer relished while I looked pained.
I am sure Sameer, who has a discerning palate, was right about how good both dishes were. But sorry, those strong offal tastes just don’t work for me.
The problem is that not everything tastes like you expect it to. Gaggan Anand makes a super-light, fluffy brain dish that gets rid of the organ flavour. I have had black pudding cooked with scrambled eggs (by Richard Neat who was the UK’s youngest two Michelin star chef in the 1990s) and loved the combination.
And then there is bone marrow.
If you are of a squeamish disposition, then bone marrow does not sound appetising. It is a gelatinous substance at the centre of bones and seemed to me to be vaguely “ugh”. For many years when people sucked the marrow out of mutton bones, I felt mildly repulsed. Even when they told me that a Nalli NIhari made use of bone marrow flavour, I was unimpressed.
Then, in 2012, I went to the Singapore Gourmet Summit which was a really big deal in that era. Among the chefs who was cooking was Fergus Henderson of St. John, the London restaurant. Henderson introduced nose-to-tail eating to the Anglo-Saxon world and is an enormously influential chef so I was keen to meet him. We met up at the restaurant in Sentosa where he was doing a pop-up and he kindly insisted I stay for lunch.
Henderson’s signature dish is bone marrow with toast. And as the great man was present himself in the kitchen with only a sous chef or two, it seemed the perfect opportunity to finally try the Western world’s most famous bone marrow dish.
When it arrived, I was entranced. Henderson’s bone marrow had a sweet, light, buttery quality about it that complemented its essential meatiness. He served it with toasted sour dough bread, salt and a parsley salad. You put a bit of the marrow on the bread, sprinkled a little salt on it and popped it in your mouth. Next you had a bit of the parsley salad which complemented the marrow perfectly.
It was love at first bite; I had rarely eaten anything that delicious.
A year later, Henderson’s bone marrow dish had become so globally famous that it began turning up on menus everywhere. In America, chefs tried to come up with new marrow dishes or just riffed on the Henderson classic.
Two years later, when I was in New York, I read about a new restaurant in the West Village called The Marrow whose specialty was - as the name suggests - bone marrow. I duly went along, liked the restaurant, had a long chat with the very knowledgeable lady sommelier and ordered the bone marrow.
It was delicious, served on the bone and came with a coating of something I couldn’t quite identify. They explained that they paired bone marrow with uni or sea urchin, a match made in West Village heaven.
Or was it?
When I went online to check on the restaurant (the New York Times gave it just one star which I thought was unfair) I discovered that a controversy had begun. Apparently, before The Marrow opened, Eric Ripert, the chef at the Michelin three star New York restaurant, Le Bernardin, had already started pairing sea urchin with bone marrow. Food bloggers accused The Marrow of ripping Le Bernardin off. The chef at The Marrow said he had no idea that Ripert already served this dish (yeah, sure....) but Ripert himself was gracious. He did not deny that it was his creation but said that he was flattered that other chefs wanted to try the same combination. And in no time at all, marrow and sea urchin became a classic pairing.
Good for Ripert. Not so good for the Marrow which closed in two years time.
The world has now gone marrow-mad especially after Anthony Bourdain said he wanted marrow to be his last meal on earth. (Sadly, it was not.) Too many of the marrow dishes on Western menus however seem to me to be derivative of Henderson and Ripert’s versions so I keep looking for new takes on the marrow.
Over the last few months I have found three killer versions. The first is at a Thai restaurant in Bangkok called 100 Mahaseth. Their marrow bone is smothered with charcoal and roasted and then covered with Thai spices. I ate it once and dreamt about it for weeks.
The next time I was in Bangkok a few months ago, I arrived in the middle of a storm. But I braved the rain and the howling wind to make the trek to 100 Mahaseth (which was nearly empty because of the storm) and order two portions of the marrow.
A few weeks ago, at Hoppers in London, I came across a dish called Bone Marrow Varuval. I associate Varuvals with semi-dry dishes (but then I am no expert on South Indian cuisine) but this was a marrow bone with a spicy Indian gravy. It was so amazing that I went to the kitchen to ask the chef where the recipe was from. It turned out they had invented the dish at Hoppers.
Then, last Friday in Milan, at a one-Michelin starred restaurant called Alice, I had a marrow dish to beat all marrow dishes. An osso buco is an Italian veal shank and many chefs focus on getting the meat tender. But Viviana Varese, the Chef at Alice, turned it into a dish where the marrow was the star, topping it with a carpaccio of Piedmontese Beef.
I loved it so much that I went back to Alice only to eat the Osso Buco on my last day (Monday). The chef was surprised to see me back so soon and though the rest of her food is fabulous (a second star must surely be on its way), this is the dish that has stuck in my memory.
Why don’t we make more of the marrow in India? Well, as alert readers may have guessed, there is a problem. The best, juiciest and largest chunk of the marrow comes not from the goat but from the cow. And beef is now a problem in much of India.
My guess is that the marrow from a buffalo will work in most dishes but restaurants have begin to shun even the buffalo (which is holy to nobody except perhaps for Italian mozzarella-makers) for fear of being accused of serving beef.
So we won’t see a marrow varuval in India soon. Italian restaurants will make lacklustre osso bucos and Thai restaurants will steer clear of the 100 Mahaseth-style marrow.
Which is a shame. But it still makes my original point: don’t assume that there are things you can’t eat. Even if you hate glandular meat as much as I do, there are always unusual foods waiting to be discovered.
No liver or kidneys for me. (And certainly no testicles!)
But it has been six years now and I am still madly in love with the marrow!