Do you eat offal? is it forbidden by your religion? Or do you just think it tastes like poop?
In Palermo, fast food sold in the streets is almost all made of offal.
One of the absolute classic dishes of Palermo is U pani ca meusa, which means, “bread with spleen”. I ususally give this to visiting foreign friends without telling them what it is, and reveal the offal truth after the last mouthful has been swallowed. They say it is delicious. If they knew what it was in advance, they would refuse to try it.
As I explained in my previous post, the offal at the heart of all Palermo’s fast food is a legacy of the now-vanished Jewish community, which handed it out to all the poor starving people who gathered round their doors. The roadside Offal Chefs of Palermo are celebrities. They don’t need to be on TV to be a celebrity chef in Sicily. You just need a loud voice, a deep fat fryer and the ability to cook 200 spleens a day without baptising your customers in boiling oil.
Check out this 3-minute documentary about Rocky, il Re della Vucciria (The King of the Vucciria Street Market), talking about the REAL “fasty food” like spleen sandwiches. Don’t mention junk-food like “MecDonal” to me, he warns. Who would want to eat a boring sandwich wrapped in polystyrene when they could have some tasty and wholesome fried offal, he wonders?
My favourite celebrity offal chef has sadly retired now. He was simply known as Gianfortuna the Stigghiolaro. A stigghiola is a sheep’s ileum wound tightly around the whole length of a spring onion and grilled on a street corner by the Stigghiolaro, a Sicilian word I can only translate as ‘Small intestine kebab chef’.
Stigghiolari are esteemed as folk heroes for their ability to spend twelve-hour working shifts inhaling smoke so thick and pungent it would make mere mortals need artificial resuscitation and maybe an oxygen mask. They tolerate a constant dousing by droplets of hot fat and, not least, they stay alive despite dining on small intestines for lunch and dinner almost every day of their lives.
Gianfortuna the Stigghiolaro was one of my husband’s old school friends. He was a cheerful and spherical fellow who lived inside an impenetrable column of smoke which rendered him invisible and rose to the stratosphere, where it spread out into an atomic mushroom shape, visible across the whole bay of Palermo and, on a good day, as far away as Sardinia.
The day he retired was a tragedy though his wife said it was great to wash his clothes once instead of three times. It was also good for his health. I nearly walked right past him the last time I saw him. He was unrecognisable. He actually had a neck.
Another major celebrity chef of Palermo is Nino u Ballerino (Nino the Dancer) – so named for his choreographic abilities to hold five bread rolls in one hand, whilst frying spleens, wringing two litres of oil out of them and launching them into the buns with the other hand. He does this all in 25 seconds. I timed him.
Home cooking in Sicily uses offal too. The Sicilians have a sweet-and-sour way of cooking liver that stops it tasting like poop. I’ll give you that recipe soon. It’s actually delicious.
Sometimes my husband tucks into a steaming plate of cow stomach soup, a dish so repulsive that I have to create a barricade of mineral water and condiment bottles along the centre of the table to make sure I cannot see his plate. I find the sight of him eating a stomach so stomach turning that, otherwise, I will end up going to bed with an empty stomach myself.
Hubby once ate a dish which I could only name “The inside of a goat”. His dinner plate had a trachea with one lung hanging off it, half a heart, a spleen, some really massive and rubbery arteries and a few other bits of interior anatomy which I declined to examine.
Give me a spleen sandwich any day. They are delicious. Honestly, I swear.
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