John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
International smugglers have tried to bring cow brains into Egypt four times in the past two weeks
When confronted with a large, anonymous box that vaguely smells of offal, most people would walk the other way. But as it's airline security's job to investigate these matters, a brave inspector at Cairo International Airport cracked open such a container last Friday to uncover a ghoulish present: 420 pounds of cow brains, on ice and destined for Cairo's choicest restaurants.
The organs had arrived in the company of three people flying in from Sudan, reports the Associated Press. Incredibly, this was the fourth time that week that somebody had tried to fly contraband cow brains into the country. One can imagine that Egyptian customs employees are growing tired of being slapped in the eyes by surprise troves of lobes.
The rationale behind the influx of shady brain smugglers? Sudan has a large supply of cheap cow noggins, and Cairo apparently hungers for them the way Cookie Monster loves him some chocolate chip. A bovine brain that retails for under a dollar in Sudan can go for six times as much in Egypt's capital, according to the AP's account. That's good money, and all you have to do for it is have a Dexter-like detachment from drippy blood and gelatinous tissue.
So what happens to this cholesterol-rich cargo when it hits the streets of Cairo?
Various interesting things. It might wind up next to slabs of liver on the hot grill of a sidewalk food vendor, where Egyptians with growling stomachs can chomp on brain sandwiches. Cow brains also supplement the menus of higher-end establishments, such as this joint that boasts of its "exlant" brain selection.
A popular brain-munching spot is the Tourism Restaurant Taher located in downtown Cairo, a convenient walk away from the Nile Hilton. (A pause while you annotate your map.) Here, diners with brain on the mind can suckle at "exquisite brain” that is served with salad, baladi bread and a palette of yummy side dishes. Says one intrepid eater: "Deep-fried and cut into small portions, the brain's texture takes some getting used to with its squishy nature and, well, the idea that you're eating a brain."
At home, cooks can heat a brain in a pot with lemon juice and plant resin to make a boiled delicacy that looks like it's thinking. Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong site notes that the organ is devoid of sugar but contains unusual levels of vitamin A, making it a strange kind of superfood. People who accuse the bicycling star of doping now must account for the possibility he was running on unadulterated, energy-pumping brain.
(Amateur cooks take note: Before ingesting brains from cows over 30 months old, make sure to remove those mad-cow prions or you might contract coordination-destroying, hallucination-causing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.)
As for the final destination of those 420 pounds of Cairo moo goo, the AP says that because airport officials could not determine if they were preserved in a sanitary manner, they burned them all. One can only imagine with a little olive oil and salt.
Pictured: Calves heads at the Rungis International Market in France, by Wikipedia user Myrabella.