In praise of beef tongue: It's versatile and delicious, so why don't more people eat it?
Singapore now has its first gyutan specialty restaurant dedicated to beef tongue. Will it be able to reach beyond those who love offal to those who recoil at the thought of it?
In this part of the world, it can be safely assumed that our forefathers were pretty adventurous eaters. They were the ones, after all, who decided to put fish heads into curry (even if motivated by necessity), the eyeballs of which we still fight over today. They also had the gumption to, in spite of everything about it telling them to back off and run away, put durian into their mouths.
This is why I was surprised when I heard that a recently-opened restaurant had passersby stopping to ask about what they served, only to walk out when they heard the answer – all while food journalists like myself were getting excited about the concept.
When you think about all the things we do eat – chicken feet and century egg are among the most reviled by non-Asian cultures – I wonder why we haven’t fully embraced tongue.
We eat all kinds of offal in our local dishes: Pork intestines and skin in kway chap; paru or beef lung in nasi padang; babat or tripe satay; chicken liver and gizzard with chicken rice; a mix of goat or mutton innards in sup kambing; pork heart and liver in Eurasian feng; and so on.
I can only conclude that it’s the “ick” factor of what the word “tongue” conjures: The sense that eating it is somehow akin to making out with a dead cow. Never mind that we’re happy to chow down on pork intestines that up until very recently, contained piggy poop.
In the last few decades, tongue dishes became somewhat antiquated, so it’s easy to forget that many cultures all over the world enjoy them. Recall, for instance, how in Enid Blyton books, the Famous Five were always eating tongue sandwiches at their picnics with their lashings of hard boiled eggs, ginger beer and macaroons?
They weren’t the only ones. Jewish delis in the USA might serve tongue pastrami sandwiches; old-timey French, Italians, Portugese and Albanians like their tongue dishes cold, braised or sauced; Mexicans have tongue tacos; Filipinos enjoy it in a stew made with tomatoes and vinegar or canned cream of mushroom soup – we could be here all day.
My own obsession with beef tongue – or ox tongue, as it's also known – began years ago in Austria, where I first sampled a dish called Pokelzunge: A large section of the back of the tongue boiled in a copper pot, in a savoury vegetable-laden soup. It was texturally the most beautiful thing I had ever tasted: Chewy yet tender, with a more intense and earthy beefiness than beef itself. I could not stop thinking about it.
And then in Japan, I grew addicted to meals dedicated to different cuts of tongue, from the thin, sinewy front to the thick, meaty back, all lightly grilled over charcoal and then dipped in raw egg and quickly eaten, chased down with salad and a rice dish.
This is the type of experience Gyutan-Tan hopes to bring to Singapore, using Angus beef from Australia. Head Chef Yoshiyuki Kuroshima and his team make sure the show kitchen’s binchotan-fuelled grill is dancing with flames. If you’ve never really had a go at tongue before, this is a non-intimidating place to start – and wallet-friendly, to boot (you can get a set lunch or rice bowl for S$20). Many of the tongue dishes are well marinated or cooked medium-well to well-done, resulting in little gaminess and a flavour close to beef. (They offer chicken and pork dishes, too.)
Dedicated foodies, needless to say, have enjoyed tongue in restaurants here for a while now, and the protein is steadily gaining momentum. Restaurants like Le Bon Funk, Yen Yakiniku and Gyu-Kaku are known for their tongue dishes, while newer restaurants like Cenzo by chef Drew Nocente have tongue on their menu. Tongue is also increasingly seen in Sichuan eateries here – noodle restaurant Chuan Hung does a rather addictive version of silky tongue slices in spicy, soupy rice noodles.
When I feel like treating myself at home, I pick up some thinly sliced wagyu tongue from Don Don Donki, and we grill it to perfection, enjoying its hint of crunch and springy meatiness with a few squirts of lemon and a sprinkle of salt.
Quality tongue such as wagyu doesn't come cheap. It may be labelled an "off-cut" in some people's minds, but a single cow, yielding 200kg of meat, clearly possesses only one tongue.
Of course, there are people who balk simply at the suggestion of dining on offal. But I suspect these same people will quite happily eat – and pay a lot for – foie gras, which is goose liver; uni, which is the gonads of sea urchins; caviar, which is really unborn fish embryos; truffle, which is a kind of fungus; bird’s nest, which is bird spit; and my personal horror, sea cucumber, which looks like an expensive, bloated, acne-ridden slug and tastes like gelatinous nothing.
My conclusion, then, is that it really all comes down to marketing.
The truth is that beef tongue, nothing more than a large muscle, is not only a good source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc; an important part of nose-to-tail eating that shows respect for the whole animal; a versatile ingredient that lends itself to being cooked in all sorts of ways; and, most importantly, just plain old delicious.
And so, my friends, a tongue renaissance is on the horizon. Let’s make tongue great again. And, while we’re at it, can we have a restaurant dedicated to liver, too?
Gyutan-Tan is at 41 Tras Street.