The jokes, of course, began earlier in the day.
You’ve got to be nuts to eat those things.
Ordering them for dinner is definitely a ballsy decision.
Appetizers? You’ve got that one in the bag.
In hindsight, I think most of the texts my friends sent me that day were rooted in the very real discomfort they felt at what I was going to have for dinner. This, after all, is a country whose food culture is generally predicated on the idea that we can separate whatever flesh we’re consuming from the concept of the living, sentient animal from which it was cut.
But these—well, you just can’t separate the testicles on your plate from anything other than what they’ve always been. You look at them, and you know exactly what part of the lamb they called home.
That’s part of the allure of pushing yourself to taste outside your comfort zone. Too often, we eat passively, forgetting about or ignoring the intimate communion we’re sharing with the food on our plate. It’s why I occasionally find it so necessary to taste things that make me a little bit squeamish.
The other reason is less lofty, more hedonistic: You never know when you’ll find your next favorite food.
So down the proverbial hatch they went. I couldn’t believe these were the first lamb testicles I’d ever eaten. Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides, of Kanella (1001 Spruce St.), had deep-fried them and paired them with a bracing parsley, onion and caper-berry salad. Just beneath the shattering surface of the whispy crust, the testicles themselves were milk-toned and dense, and their flavor reminded me of sweetbreads, but in a minor key—more like a delicate mushroom, as opposed to a just-dug-up and funky one. They were transporting.
I was at Kanella for just this reason. A few months ago, after a PW piece on authentic foods in Philly, I received an email from Pitsillides, pointing out that he’s always cooked authentically, and that I was remiss for having not included his restaurant. So when the time came to prepare for this piece, I called him up and asked if he’d prepare the testicles I’d heard he did so well. I was clear that this wouldn’t be a review, but an article for which I’d like to consider including this particular dish.
I got more than I bargained for: He’d arranged an entire adventure-eating menu the night my guest and I visited. [Note: In keeping with PW policy, we paid for the menu; this was not a free meal.]
We started with lamb tongue, easily one of my favorite parts of the animal. It had been sliced lengthwise into several palm-thick filets, grilled and paired with a bright, fresh tabbouleh. In flavor and texture, it reminded me of the best brisket you could ever eat, deeply savory, with a touch of sweetness from the grill’s heat. (For tongue fans, this city provides an embarrassment of riches: La Lupe’s (1201 S. Ninth St.) lengua taco has attained near-legend status, and Famous 4th Street Deli (700 S. Fourth St.) serves an excellent version of the Jewish-grandmother classic. I’ve also had wonderful duck tongues at Wokano (1100 Washington Ave.). You eat them like artichoke leaves, pulling the meat from the central bone. It would be a great Super Bowl snack, if you were so inclined.
Skewers of delicate, creamy rabbit kidneys also made an appearance, their flan-like centers encased in a diaphanous outer layer kissed with the smoke of the grill: Perfect. Then the centerpiece of the menu, an homage to the calf—meaty tongue, succulent cheeks and brain, which itself is just as much about texture as flavor. This was almost panna cotta-like on the tongue, and took on the character of the hearty, grain-flecked sauce it arrived in. It succeeded on every level.
Eating the unfamiliar or uncomfortable is often an intellectual experience. The one question that always seems to come up is this: Can you derive sensual pleasure from something that, in a very real way, makes you squeamish? That tension, that dichotomy, often forms the backbone for the enjoyment that follows.
So try the hottest item on the menu at Han Dynasty (I have an acquaintance who once ordered the dan dan noodles at heat-level 12, and lived to tell the tale). Head to the Northeast and ask for recommendations at Chaikhana Uzbekistan. Make regular trips to West Philly for African preparations you’ve never seen before.
Adventurous eating doesn’t only mean chowing down on the nastier slices of animals, but often simply exposing yourself to new flavors and textures. No matter what part of the plant or creature they come from, that in and of itself is a ballsy move. Whether or not actual balls are involved.
The first surprise of the evening was just how appealing the whole pig’s head looked. It arrived on a wooden platter, the skin roasted in the wood-fired oven to a crispy brown, the snout pointing out toward the dining room in an expression that could only have been read as some sort of piggy pride: It had not died in vain.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014