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Dish is a Specialty in Many Countries : Tongue Remains a Mystery Meat to Many Americans

July 13, 1989|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Tongue was considered a delicacy, even though it cost pennies in those days long ago when I was growing up in New York City. My mother would boil tongue for hours on the stove, sending wafts of strong, gamy odors that probably made the neighbors in our tenement building think we were cooking up a banquet of hummingbird tongues, cockscomb fringes and doe cheeks.

Who knows what? The point is that my mother, an excellent cook, knew what to do with tongue. No one else I've met since seems to know.

Beef and calf's tongue is a specialty of all countries where beef and lamb are produced. That takes in almost the world. In the United States, acceptance of lamb generally and organ meats in particular has been somewhat retarded. Americans consume 1.4 pounds of lamb per capital per retail weight, compared with 72.5 pounds for beef in 1988, according to the American Meat Institute. Organ meat, in all red-meat categories, had a per capita consumption of 8.5 pounds in 1988 (2 billion total pounds domestically), with beef liver probably making up the bulk, according to Jens Knutson, an economist at the American Meat Institute. Export of organ meats to European markets amounted to 565 million total pounds in 1987.

A Vons Grocery Co. meat buyer claims that sales of beef and lamb tongue have dropped dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years--about 40% to 50%.

"People don't know how to use tongue, even though it's a fine meat with practically no waste, and it's an available product," said the Vons representative. Most of the tongue consumed in Los Angeles is chiefly by Latinos, Jewish delis, sandwich shops and fancy restaurants. Except for Latino markets, promotion because of low demand is almost nil.

Thanks to French chefs working in the United States who have helped introduce lamb and beef tongue to some measure, Americans are learning how versatile and inexpensive tongue can be, especially during the summer picnic season. Tongue lends itself especially well to serving cold as a first course or salad, as you would pate.

High Fat Content

Nutritionally, lamb and beef tongue fare comparably, providing appreciable amounts of iron and B vitamins. Protein content is about the same as well. A three-ounce serving of tongue that has been cooked has about 240 calories, two-thirds from fat. If you are watching intake of saturated fat, beef tongue, like pate, is a food that should be reserved for special occasions.

You will probably find fresh beef tongue more available than lamb tongue. Smoked tongue, which is cured, but requires further cooking, is also available on rare occasions. An average beef tongue weighs about 3 pounds, compared with 1/4 pound for lamb. Some aficionados prefer lamb tongue because of its greater tenderness and less coarse texture. Cost difference is slight. Beef tongues cost about $2.89 per pound prepackaged and lamb $2.29 at Vons. However, so-called "No. 2" (second-quality) tongues can be as low as $1.59 if frozen or if outer skin is mottled and bruised. "There is nothing wrong with seconds. The skin is removed anyway," said the Vons representative.

Tongue, a slow, long-cooking meat, can be prepared as you would less tender cuts of beef. It may be boiled, pickled, braised, baked or grilled. Any sauce may be added to cooked tongue, including curry, tomato, sweet and sour, as well as cold sauces, such as vinaigrette or dill sauce.

Tongue can be prepared well in advance and kept chilled in the refrigerator for several days. When cooking tongue, be sure to cover with water, skimming off scum as it cooks. When done, cool enough to peel off the outer skin (it will slip off easily) and slice meat as desired.

My mother would marinate tongue and slice it wafer-thin to serve as an appetizer. Sometimes, cold, sliced tongue went to our family beach picnics to serve in a sandwich. Other times, it would appear hot with a sauce as an entree.

To show how versatile tongue can be, we give several methods for cooking tongue and sauces to add to cooked tongue.


3 to 3 1/2 pounds uncooked smoked beef or calf's tongue

1 clove garlic

2 bay leaves

8 whole cloves

1/4 teaspoon mustard seed

6 whole black peppers


Mustard Sauce

Caper Sauce

Sweet and Sour Sauce

Wash tongue and place in Dutch oven or deep kettle. Add garlic, bay leaves, cloves, mustard seed and peppers. Add cold water to cover and simmer, covered, until tender when pierced with fork, about 3 hours.

Remove tongue from water and let stand few minutes. Remove and discard skin, bones and excess fat. Cut meat across grain and serve cold with Vinaigrette or warm with Mustard Sauce, Caper Sauce or Sweet and Sour Sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


3 tablespoons vinegar

6 tablespoons oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons capers

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon grated onion

Combine vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, capers, parsley and onion. Blend well. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Mustard Sauce

2 tablespoons dry mustard

2 tablespoons boiling water

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