Each culture celebrates food differently. From Day of the Dead feasts in Mexico to full-animal braais in South Africa, people have always chosen food as a way to distinguish their culture. While libraries of books have been published on these differences, the more interesting part of food culture is where these traditions intersect. Take rice, for example. In Japanese culture rice cookery is contingent on clean flavors while in Cajun cuisine rice is cooked with plenty of spices and pork products; same grain, totally different iterations. Each month I will bring you one ingredient and at least three different cultural uses for the ingredient highlighting differences in spices and cooking techniques. I hope you will enjoy using these focus foods as a passport to new places and cuisines. Heck, maybe you will discover a new favorite recipe from an old favorite staple.
It is cold outside. Am I surprising anyone? No? Good. While bears may have the easy way out of this one, the rest of us can at least warm ourselves from the inside out. Each culture has its cold-weather staples, but oxtails stand out across the globe.
The term oxtail used to refer to the tail end of an ox or steer, but now more commonly refers to the tail of a cow. A full tail can range from two to four pounds and varies in length depending on the size of the cow. For retail you will see them cut into more manageable chunks. They are packed with collagen, making them ideal for slow braising and rich soups or stews. Additionally, they are too often seen as “throwaway cuts” meaning they are a bargain for shoppers.
Looking at the cut itself, there is a large bone running through the center. It is normal for this piece to feel fleshy (read: squishy) in the center; all of that deliciousness will create an amazing sauce. The meat itself looks segmented and is separated with tough connective tissue. It takes time, liquid, and a little acid to break this down, which is why the oxtails are so frequently used in slow, moist cooking methods.
While many cultures celebrate the humble oxtail, we are going to focus our attention to the most filling, warming preparations on this bitter cold winter day.
Cape Malay Oxtail and Dried Fruit Curry
When I was 21, I was fortunate enough to earn an internship writing for the Cape Argus newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa. While it is was spring here in Chicago, I was in the middle of my second autumn of the year. As the temperatures dropped, we ventures to the Bo-Kaap neighborhood – an area specializing in Cape Malay cuisine. It was there that I encountered this tasty early winter curry. Here the sweetness from the fruit helps to balance the richness of the oxtails.
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 # oxtails
- 12 oz onion, sliced
- 2 oz garlic, sliced
- 2 oz ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 Tbsp mild curry powder
- 1 Tbsp garam masala
- 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 Tbsp turmeric
- 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 quart beef stock
- 4 oz dried fruit (apricots, cherries, and pineapple would be best)
- 1 c heavy cream
- 8 oz tomatoes
- 2 red chilies, seeds removed and sliced
- 1 Tbsp lemon zest
- 2 oz fresh parsley, chopped
- Olive oil
- In a large pot, brown the oxtail pieces in olive oil until rich, deep brown color develops. Remove oxtails and set aside.
Add onions to the pot. When onions start to soften, add garlic, ginger, and all spices. Cook until very fragrant (about 5 minutes).
Add oxtails back into the pot. Add stock. Cook on low heat on the stovetop for four hours.
In the meantime, pulse all sambal ingredients other than oil in a food processor. Drizzle in oil until very thick sauce forms.
During the last half hour of cooking, add cream and dried fruit.
Serve oxtails, curry, and sambal over basmati rice.
Calling these “Southern” is a bit redundant. Oxtails were a slave food during the South’s torrid past, meaning there are about as many “Southern Oxtail” recipes as there are Southern cooks; some stew in tomato gravy, some in Caribbean flavors, and others in gravy. That being said this is an iteration with a little bit of everything. The oxtails get floured and seared, then stewed, which produces an intoxicatingly thick and rich gravy. Depending on where you are in the South, you would serve this over rice, grits, or even mashed potatoes.
Braised Oxtails (adapted from a recipe on Black Girl Chef Whites blog)
- 4-5 lbs oxtails
- ½ c flour
- 2 Tb olive oil
- 1 Tb butter
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 c red wine
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp dried thyme, or 3 sprigs fresh
- 1 tsp dried sage, or 2 leaves fresh
- 4 c beef or chicken stock (you may need more depending on the size of your pot)
- 1 bay leaf
Season oxtails with salt and pepper. Toss them in a plastic Ziploc bag with the flour.
Melt the butter and olive oil together in a Dutch oven or large, deep pot. Heat to medium-high.
Sear oxtails in batches, making sure to not overcrowd the pan. When they have all been seared, add onions and turn the heat to medium. When onions are translucent, add red wine and scrape all the tasty bits from the pan (deglazing in a fancy kitchen). Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Make sure the oxtails are at least 90% covered by liquid.
Go get a beer, make a pie, whatever. Let your oxtails simmer for an hour and a half. Turn them over and walk away again. The oxtails are done when the meat is willingly pulling away from the bone. Reduce the liquid in the pan if necessary to make a sauce.
Serve over your chosen starch. This recipe is delicious the day it is made, but out of this world if you let it sit overnight and reheat on the stove.
Coda alla Vaccinara
This dish comes to use from Rome, and was a classic peasant-class staple. The defining flavor ingredient is celery, but it is given a sweet, spicy kick from cloves, cinnamon, and, in some kitchens, cocoa. As with most Italian food, this stew pairs perfectly with good bread and wine.
Coda alla Vaccinara (adapted from a recipe from Eating Italy)
- 2.5 lbs oxtails
- 1/3 lb pork cheek, pancetta, or bacon
- Olive oil
- 2 celery stalks, medium dice
- 1 onion, medium dice
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2.5 lb chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
- 2 c dry white wine
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 celery stalks, medium dice
- Pine nuts (optional to taste)
- Raisins (optional to taste)
- Unsweetened cocoa (optional to taste)
Brown oxtails pieces in bacon fat and olive oil. When seared on all sides, add celery, onion, garlic, clove, salt and pepper and sweat until onions start to become translucent.
Add wine and cook for 15 minutes, stirring anything that may be stuck to the pan. Add tomatoes and enough hot water to cover the oxtails entirely. Simmer for at least 3 hours, adding water if necessary.
When meat is falling off of the bone, add the other two stalks of celery and whichever optional ingredients strike your fancy. Simmer until sauce consistency.
Serve with bread and wine.
There are few things more simple and delicious than this Korean bone soup. Contrary to the other preparations, not many flavoring ingredients are used for this dish, producing a clean and satisfying bone broth. The meat is certainly involved, but the long cooking assures that every bit of gelatin is extracted from the oxtails. Eat this when you get the inevitable winter cold.
Kkori-gomtang (adapted from a recipe on Gangnam Kitchen)
- 4-5 lbs oxtails
- Water or clear stock (chicken or vegetable)
- 1 leek, medium dice
- Scallions, for serving
Place oxtails in a large bowl and soak in cold water for at least 30 minutes to clean any blood out (the blood will make the soup cloudier). Rinse again.
Place oxtails and leek in large pot and add as much water as you can. Bring to a boil.
When it is at a rolling boil, turn the heat down and simmer for 10-14 hours, adding water if necessary.
When soup is done strain chill the liquid. Pick the oxtail meat from the bones and reserve.
The soup will set up and you will be able to easily pull the layer of white fat from the top of the soup.
When you are ready to serve, heat soup in a pan and saute oxtail meat. Put the meat in a bowl, pour the soup over, and garnish with scallions. This can be served with pickled vegetables and rice cakes, as well.
Growing up in a Mexican family in the South, Rachel Valdéz began to love food before she could hold a spoon. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism, Rachel decided to go into the kitchen professionally. Having just finished her culinary arts degree at Kendall College, she is primed to start work at one of Chicago’s food nonprofits to help alleviate the pressures of food access issues in Chicago. In her spare time Rachel enjoys cuddling her puppy, haphazardly doing yoga, and writing about herself in the third person.