Deconstructed sheep's head with the traditional dusting of dried wild thyme
One of the reasons I like living in Penang is that when folks booking a street food walk make a special request it's never for dishes featuring bugs or sheep balls. Food here on the island is not 'weird' or 'bizarre' (though I suppose duck blood cubes, a component of some versions of curry mee might be considered 'out there'). So when I head out the door in the morning I never have to worry that today's walk will be all about how many edible oddities we'll be consuming instead of the ingredients and food, its back story and the people who make it.
I have nothing against offal -- working on our Turkish cookbook has turned me into a liver lover. Grilled gizzards are fab, tripe definitely has a place in Malay beef vermicelli soup and I do like blood cubes on occasion (always in northern Thailand, where they tend to be chewy and a bit smoky flavored). But I have been over travelers questing after the weirdest local food they can find since the year it became A Thing.
Placing the chase after the fifth quarter, or bugs, or unhatched duck eggs above all else blinds us to so much that is not known about a cuisine (outside of its home) -- and that never will be known about a cuisine because it doesn't rate the 'unusual' tag.
Consider the Philippines, and the adventuring food travelers and writers who've visited and come away blabbering about balut and blood stew but never about sinigang, one of the country's most beloved and oft-eaten dishes. Or Turkey, where lists of must-eats invariably include chicken breast pudding -- (Chicken! In a sweet dish! So crazy!) -- but not the humble kuru fasulye, a national soul food if ever there was one.
The flipside to my disdain (can you feel it?) for this weirdest-first manner of approaching cuisines is that I can be guilty of veering too much the other way. For instance: we were 16 months in Turkey researching our cookbook, but it was not until the last days of our final month in country that I tried kelle tandir, or roasted sheep's head.
Turks love kelle, be it boiled and served cold, roasted and served warm or cooked in a soup. Kelle tandir is quite big in Sivas city (Sivas is both a city and a province; Turkish provinces share names with their capital cities), where every morning we passed several shops famed for their wood fire oven-roasted sheep heads, the mahogany skulls staring out of warmed display cases like sentries. In Sivas kelle is breakfast fare. I regret never trying it there. (In my defense, after big dinners in private homes comprising an often obscene number of dishes I could rarely summon a real appetite before noon. Also, few to no American home cooks are going to cook sheep's head in a wood-fired oven, so I wasn't compelled learn how to make it for the book.)
So when two chef friends invited us to join them for a lunch of roasted sheep's head on one of our last days in Istanbul we accepted. The venue was a well-known shop in the Fish Market off Istiklal Caddesi. Service was swift; within 5 or so minutes of placing our order we each had a plate of head.
I had expected the kelle to be served whole; I was looking forward to using my fingers to pull the tender meat from the skull the way you pull crispy skin from a whole roast chicken. ('For fish and kelle the best utensils are fingers,' a Turkish friend says). Instead it arrived deconstructed, brain (at 5 o'clock in the photo up top) and eyeball (7 o'clock) scooped onto the plate (1 serving is half a head). I had also looked forward to sampling brain (my first ever), which one of our chef friends talked up as we waited for our meal.
Well. The meat and crispy skin were delicious, especially eaten dusted with a bit of dried wild thyme. If you like the taste of lamb you'll enjoy roast kelle. The eyeball -- meh. Chewy and springy but not a lot going on in the taste department. The brain? A big disappointment. I'd imagined spreading it on bread and savoring it like pate or lardo. It was fatty, unctuous in texture and exceedingly rich. But where was the flavor? If I'm going to eat pure fat I'd rather it be shmaltz, or the charred strip of fat that limns a nice grilled steak.
What can I say? I don't like brain. (For what it's worth, Dave does. He devoured his.) I left most on my plate (for my friend to eat), saving room and calories for dessert at the pastane several doors down.
Kelle tandir, at Sahne Sokak 18, Balikpazari (Fish Market), Beyoglu. Till 6pm.