Ever French Kissed a Cow…?

Well I have.

I enjoyed my first kiss just recently – truly vampiric: long, urgent, and slightly bloody. Chewy, even. Mmmm.

Was it at least consensual, you ask? Very open-minded of you, as initial reactions go, but I’m afraid the answer is no. I forced myself upon the cow.

But before you start frantically surfing the web for the RSPCA, I’m not sure you could get me under UK law on this one. Because it happened in Japan.

In a perfectly respectable restaurant, in fact. Said cow’s tongue was lovingly scored, peppered, garnished, and grilled, in advance of its arrival at the quivering, expectant mouth of a hungry suitor.

I wonder how you feel at this point? I have a pretty good idea how vegetarians might feel: sickened, sad – perhaps grimly vindicated at seeing meat-eating’s dark side so clearly revealed. Hopefully not violently revengeful, at any rate.

An 1886 advert for tongue - see the British Library's Evanion Collection of Ephemera for more

But what about the rest of you? For some reason, fried beef tongue, ordinary enough years ago, has become something of a minority sport in British cuisine these days. It now seems as out of bounds to fool around with bovine sensory organs as to chow down on any section at all of the hallowed horse. Does the tongue now seem to us just too sensual, too unnervingly human?

There’s a name we give to something that feels wrong but tastes right: a delicacy.

And that’s how cow tongue is treated in Japan, with special restaurants dedicated to it, and Sendai – in the northern part of the country – famous for it.

With time, you’ll even find you have a favourite part of the cow’s tongue. Are you a hard tip kind of a guy, or a softer inner tongue girl? Why not experiment? It being a delicacy and all, restaurants like the popular ‘Negishi’ chain provide illustrated guides:

Negishi's quick guide to cow tongue ('gyu-tan' in Japanese): towards the left, the tip, we have hard ('red') tongue, and in the opposite direction a softer ('white') portion

If you’re feeling a little hostile about Japan at this point, reign it in. If fault there be, in cutting out and eating dear Bessie’s tongue, it’s largely ours: the eating of beef in general is remembered in Japan as a legacy of the country’s westernization from the late nineteenth century onwards.

That said, Japan wasn’t quite the fully-Buddhist, non-harming paradise before then that some like to imagine. And here in 2013 just try surviving as a veggie for very long outside big cities. The vegetarian option can still turn out to be the surly and unceremonious scraping, right in front of you, of any obvious meat content off your plate; or sometimes a cheerful suggestion that you try just a little bit of meat – as though vegetarianism is mostly a problem of excessive caution or prissiness.

M.K. Gandhi, as he was in his early years as law student and lawyer

India has a similar modern history, in that some aspirational young Indians used to associate the voracious appetite for beef amongst red-faced colonizing Brits with the latter’s brutally successful civilisation, which made itself a largely unwanted guest on the subcontinent for two hundred years. Many a curious youngster is said to have dabbled, while for others the cow remained sacred and integral to life, faith, and – in the modern era – political identity. In many a local election beef could easily become a hot potato, as it were.

Even Mahatma Gandhi once tried meat-eating, wondering whether some magical effect on his physique or character might result. Instead the effect turned out mostly to be gastric, and decidedly unmagical; Gandhi was generally safe company for cows from that point on. He began to argue the medical and ethical case for vegetarianism while living in London, serving on the executive committee of the Vegetarian Society and even starting a new local club in Bayswater, which he invited the legendary poet Sir Edwin Arnold to join.

Has history made you hungry? Is the time right for fresh culinary adventures in gloomy, austerity Britain? Ordinary beef eaters of long standing may find the relationship grown stale, the once-cherished steak now no more than a passionless Friday night run-through. In which case, perhaps some forbidden novelty beckons. For the sceptics, next week brings a rather more nuanced guest post, on the pros and cons of the vegan life…

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One comment

  • JUNKO KONO
    April 18, 2013 - 12:35 am | Permalink

    Dear Chris, that was fun to read. I did not know the tang dish becomes less popular in the UK. Also thank you for educatingabout Gandih’s behavior while he was in London. K

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