Ugly Food: Overlooked and undercooked

Tim Wharton, Richard Horsey

    Research output: Book/ReportBook - authored


    Octopus is delicious. It’s not just good, or nice, or tasty, it’s absolutely delicious. Cooked properly, octopus arms have the texture of lobster, perhaps even scallop. They’re firm and meaty, but tender. The flavour is hard to describe, and depends a great deal on not only how the octopus has been cooked, but how it’s been prepared before being cooked. Strangely, it doesn’t taste like its close cephalopod-relation the squid at all. It has a subtle, sweet and salty flavour, redolent of the sea.

    Arrive late at a fishmonger’s shop in the UK and all the pristine-white fillets of vulnerable cod and haddock will be gone. Some of the more expensive ‘prime’ fish will remain: sole, turbot, sea bass and brill are hardly everyday ingredients. But how many of you notice that nestling deep in the ice, curled up in the back corner of the huge marble slab, are the few octopuses that were landed the night before? And how many of you who notice them consider buying them, and realise they can be cooked and eaten in over the next few days in any number of delicious ways?

    Of course, we shouldn’t complain, but we are at a complete loss as to why, when octopus is half the price of even the cheaper fish, and can provide a sustainable alternative to endangered species, people shy away from this wonderful ingredient. Even the local fishermen view them with a degree of distaste. Octopuses break into lobster and crab pots and are widely regarded as by-catch (that is, the unwanted creatures you end up with in addition to those you’re actually trying to catch). A huge increase in the catch in the South of England in the last century was described as a ‘plague’ of octopus. In the UK, people just don’t eat them.

    There are many ingredients which, like octopus, are overlooked by Anglo-Saxon cuisines. Rabbits and Squirrels are plentiful – indeed, in many areas they are pests – but despite the fact that they offer tasty, cheap and sustainable alternatives to commercially produced meats, few people eat rabbits and almost no one eats squirrels. Some of the tastiest and more sustainable fish happen to be Ugly Fish: gurnard, garfish, horse mackerel (or scad), catfish, eel-pout and many more. Yet, as is the case with octopus, shoppers are still primarily attracted to those safe, faceless (and often unsustainable) fillets.

    And there are many parts of animals that consumers are fearful of – worrying that they are difficult to prepare, difficult to cook, or just downright unpalatable. Offal, of course, is one such category, although it is true that offal can be a very demanding ingredient and many people simply don’t like the taste of kidneys, liver or tripe, even when these are prepared well. But other under-appreciated animal parts are a different story. Cheeks and Feet (ox and pig cheeks, cow-heel, pig trotters, chicken’s feet to name a few) are wonderful: the boeuf bourguignon you cook with ox cheeks will be the best you have ever served. So too are Giblets, which are now rarely eaten, but which every home cook used to be familiar with back in the days when birds were bought from the butcher rather than the supermarket (even if they were often used only to add flavour to stuffing or gravy). And there are a range of overlooked Ugly Veg that make up in flavour what they lack in outward appearance: celeriac, Hamburg parsley, Jerusalem artichoke, mangel-wurzel and many more. Why shoppers are more attracted to expensive air-freighted tender-stem broccoli and sugar-snap peas we have no idea.

    All of these overlooked and undercooked ingredients are delicious, are sustainable (or reduce waste), and are not difficult to prepare when you know how. They are also pretty cheap in comparison with bland, hormone-stuffed, brine saturated, shrink-wrapped chicken breasts and pork chops.

    And that is why we have written this book. We want to convince home cooks that these amazing ingredients are deserving of a place on the plate. This is not just a recipe book or a culinary exploration or even a culinary history: it is a culinary manifesto. It is a declaration of our interest in these ingredients, our affection for these ingredients, and – yes – our love of these ingredients. We want to change the way people think about them and change the way they think about eating them.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationLondon, UK
    PublisherHurst & Co.
    Number of pages288
    ISBN (Print)9781849046862
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


    • Food
    • sustainability
    • Food processing


    Dive into the research topics of 'Ugly Food: Overlooked and undercooked'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this