Americans, Portuguese, and Tripe: The “Fifth Quarter” (and Final Frontier?) of Meat

Check out two popular tripe dishes in northern Portugal and see which one you might be adventurous enough to try.

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tripas enfarinhadas
If you were a spoiled, er, middle-class child raised in the late twentieth-century United States, you probably contorted your face in disgust at least once as your grandpa waxed ecstatic about liver and onions.  Fast forward to adulthood, and that same “you” may still scoff at grandpa’s favorite meal but happily smear gobs of pâté on crusty French bread or swoon over Cajun food with andouille sausage. (Full disclosure: they’re usually made with liver, too.)
Americans today have a complicated relationship with organ meats, sometimes called offal or the “fifth quarter” that remains after the muscle meat has been removed.  Organ meats typically refer to parts of an animal such as the liver, kidney, heart, intestines, and brains. The reason for the mixed feelings comes down to economic mobility: Americans often associate these inexpensive types of meat with lower social class, rural life, and the “backward” past, while in other countries, such as France, the world capital of pâté, “there is romance in this connection.”  As Americans became wealthier and consumed more expensive cuts, many of them lost the taste for the flavors of organ meats and acquired an aversion to them instead. 
However, people like “nose to tail” artisanal butchers of grass-fed beef and paleo dieters have made what’s old new again – well, what’s “old” to those familiar with Chinese, Mexican, and other Latin American cuisine never stopped being on the menu.  It’s just the rest of us getting with the program.
The French top the organ meat-eating countries of Europe, but plenty of traditional Portuguese cooking, as I’ve talked about before, displays a total lack of squeamishness about the animal kingdom.  (See also: lamprey, sardines, snails, percebes, and unholy quantities of eggs in Portuguese desserts.) This is especially true in northern Portugal in the city of Porto and the Minho region north of it, where tripas, or tripe, remains a popular comfort food.
Before I came to Portugal, my exposure to the word “tripe” was limited to the expression “a load of tripe” used to indicate something ridiculous or false, mostly in the period novels I read during class when I was supposed to be learning something. It never occurred to me that tripe was actually edible, nor that calling something “tripe” devalued a nutritional food that quite a lot of people creatively prepared and ate.  I was a well-read, but not very worldly sixteen-year-old.
As a grown up, I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of organ and specialty meats my teenage self would never have dreamed of: cow heart, spaghetti ai fegatini (spaghetti with liver, an Italian recipe), fish roe in the egg sack (called ovas in Portuguese), and, you guessed it, tripe.  Now, I’d be lying if I said that I would pass on a bone-in rib-eye, grilled rare, in favor of chicken gizzards.  And let me also go on record here as saying that I’m an aspirational vegetarian: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Yet I have a much greater appreciation for the craft and history of cooking with organ meats than I used to.
Naturally, I acquired much of this appreciation in Portugal, especially from my husband, Nuno, who was an enthusiastic tester of obscure organ meat recipes (i.e., spaghetti ai fegatini, which probably would *not* have topped my list of Italian foods to try but in fact is quite tasty). Most visitors to Portugal are unlikely to encounter tripas in a tourist-oriented restaurant, but for anyone curious about the origins of Portuguese – indeed, global – cuisine, tripas provide a fascinating introduction.
Tripe is a bit of a catch-all word in English and Portuguese – Spanish, too –  that entrails entails different parts of the animal, and different animal species altogether, depending upon the dish.  In northern Portugal, tripas generally refers to one of two things: tripas à moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe) made with cow stomach; and tripas enfarinhadas (floured tripe) made with pig intestine.  For me personally, one of these I can…stomach (sorry, that was offal, I mean, awful; I’ll stop now) and one of these I have tried three times and just cannot get on board with.  Read on to find out which and whether you might like to try them yourself.

Tripas à moda do Porto

Tripas à moda do Porto is basically a bean stew loaded with meat, or feijoada.  There are many types of feijoada found in different regions of Portugal, but the one most non-Portuguese might be familiar with is Brazilian, though it has Portuguese origins.   
The classic recipe for tripas à moda do Porto from Maria de Lourdes Modesto’s magisterial Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa, the ur-cookbook of traditional Portuguese food, calls for cow stomach tripas, two types of sausage, bacon, pig ears, chicken, and, for good measure, a cow hoof.  (Most of the hoof is cartilage and tendons, and the hoof bones are removed before serving. Watch Portuguese national treasure Necas Valadares use a disposable razor to shave off a few errant hairs from a cow hoof before cooking it here.) Nowadays, you can find simpler versions with fewer meats, as well as vegetarian ones.
The main star of tripas à moda do Porto, of course, is the tripas.  Cows and other “ruminants” have four stomach chambers, resulting in four kinds of cow tripe, each named according to its distinguishing features.  From the first and largest stomach, the rumen, we get blanket or flat tripe, which looks like a blanket or sheet; the second, and generally most sought-after variety, is honeycomb tripe, which comes from the reticulum and has a diamond pattern similar to a honeycomb; the third is book tripe, which looks like sheets of a book and comes from the omasum chamber; and the fourth chamber, the abomasum, is mostly used for rennet in the making of cheese.  The best tripas à moda do Porto contains honeycomb tripe or favos, which is spongy and less chewy than the other types, as well as book tripe or folhosTripas are typically purchased already “dressed” or cleaned by a butcher, and may be pre-cooked as well, since they need to be boiled for a long time to be edible.
tripas de vitela 1
How tripas were typically displayed at a Portuguese butcher shop in times past: honeycomb tripe (favos) on left and book tripe (folhos) on right, flanked by cow hooves. Image source: Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa, and possible copyright infringement by yours truly, which I risk in the name of science.
Tripas a moda do Porto
Tripas à moda do Porto. Image source: Necas Valadares.
In southern Portugal, you will find dishes made with organ meats, particularly liver, but less tripas made from cow stomachs.  Pork meat is more common in the south, while most of the certified cattle regions are in northern Portugal and the Azores, presumably because the cooler, wetter, and greener climate is most suitable for cattle grazing.  Perhaps for this reason tripas made from cow stomachs originated in northern Iberia.
People from Porto are sometimes called tripeiros, tripe eaters, in homage to this culinary legacy, and there are various origin stories for the name. Most of these revolve around tales of portuenses (people from Porto) giving over all of their available meat except tripe to medieval shipping expeditions.  However, tripas à moda do Porto probably owes its existence to the Galician version, callos (tripe) from northwestern Spain, which differs mostly in the type of bean.  In fact, back in 19th century Portugal, tripas were widely considered a Galician dish, and a tripeiro in galego, the Galician language, doesn’t mean someone who eats tripe, but someone who eats a lot.
So, how does tripas à moda do Porto taste?
Well-dressed tripe doesn’t have much flavor on its own, so the tripe takes on the stronger, saltier flavors of the other meats, particularly the sausage, as well as the cumin called for in some recipes.  If you didn’t know there was tripe and cow hooves on your plate, you might mistake the texture for a softer or slightly more gelatinous piece of beef.  Tripas à moda do Porto makes for a hearty winter meal, but it’s a lot of work to prepare, so you’ll often see it on the specials menu for Sunday lunch at traditional Portuguese restaurants.  As for myself, I can’t eat more than a ladleful, which I’m pretty sure contains several thousand calories, even without the rice usually served alongside it.

Tripas enfarinhadas

While the tripas in tripas à moda do Porto refers to cow stomach, the tripas in tripas enfarinhadas refers to pig intestines.  The small intestine, that is. 
Humans and other mammals have a small intestine and a large intestine, which work similarly across species.  In the digestive system of a pig, the longer but narrower small intestine takes digested food from the stomach, and nutrients from the food are absorbed into the blood stream.  Anything that doesn’t get absorbed as nutrients passes to the shorter but wider large intestine – the colon is just one part of the large intestine, though some people use the terms interchangeably – which helps in the absorption of water from that digested food.  Anything that doesn’t get absorbed as water passes to the rectum and out of the body as stool.
Now, I may have lost some of you here.  It’s one thing to eat a stomach that once had chewed up food in it.  It’s quite another to eat an intestine that had, well, poo in it. 
But here’s the deal: you’re not.
Recall that the pig intestines eaten in tripas enfarinhadas come from the small intestine.  Feces are produced in the large intestine, which is not used in tripas enfarinhadas.  However, large intestine can be found in foods like chitterlings (“chitlins”) common in the American south, or French andouillette sausage, considered a delicacy by some, but according to The Telegraph, “looks, smells and tastes as if it should be in a lavatory.”
Here again, the tripas in tripas enfarinhadas are usually purchased already “dressed,” but many people will also soak them in brine or lemon water at home.  Still, no matter how clean the tripe, it often retains a headier odor than muscle meat.
In Portuguese, farinha means flour, and tripas enfarinhadas are made by turning the long strand of tripas inside out, coating it with a corn flour mixture containing salt, pepper, and cumin, turning the strand right-side in, tying the ends together, and boiling until soft.  Then, the cooked tripas are fried and cut into crunchy pieces.  (See the picture under the title of this article for the final product.) They are similar to the chinchulines found in Argentine parrilladas, meals of varied grilled meats, as well as in other countries throughout Latin America. 
Tripas enfarinhadas are usually put out as an appetizer or snack food. However, famed Portuguese chef Rui Paula posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding up some pig intestine tripas, writing that they were great in feijoadas, at which point he was piled on by Portuguese commenters saying that he was talking about the wrong kind of tripas for feijoada (i.e., they should be cow stomach tripas for a feijoada, not pig intestine tripas) and teasing ensued, along the lines of “duh, you have to clean them first.”  Jury’s still out on whether tripas enfarinhadas is a snack or an ingredient, but one thing’s for certain: you’ll know them when you smell them.
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The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do!
I don’t eat a lot of tripas à moda do Porto, mostly because it’s a very calorie-dense food and I’m trying to keep my svelte figure.  (Kidding. My extra calories are reserved for Portuguese wine.) I do occasionally enjoy a meal of it in winter, especially when I can eat tripas with a group of people spinning stories about how Portugal used to be in days past.
On the other hand, I have tried tripas enfarinhadas three times now, and my conclusion is always the same – and always infantile: I am eating buttholes.  Yep.  That’s the word that immediately springs to mind based on the smell, and though anatomically inaccurate, I can’t undo it in my head.  People say that tripas enfarinhadas only has a foul odor if it hasn’t been properly cleaned, but I’m skeptical I’ve been that unlucky with just the ones I’ve eaten.
I love sushi – the oiler and richer the fish, the better – but it took me a few tries to appreciate uni, or sea urchin, which went from being repugnant to sublime.  I waited for the scales to fall from my eyes with tripas enfarinhadas.  I’m still waiting.
Apparently, though, I’m not the only one.  In a Portuguese subreddit posing the question “Quais são os pratos típicos mais nojentos de Portugal?” (“What are the most disgusting typical dishes in Portugal?”), tripas enfarinhadas makes a strong showing among the answers. Of course, it has just as many defenders.  I’ll report back if I’ve been converted.
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