Italians have an apt descriptor for a simple, crunchy-chewy hazelnut meringue cookie that tastes delicious but looks like something you’d scrape off your shoe after a visit to the dog park: brutti ma buoni, which means “ugly but good.” It’s a great name, though it’s honestly wasted on a cookie, when in fact there’s a whole world of food out there—and I’ve seen and tasted a lot of it—that rightfully could be called “ugly but good.”
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy using social media—and Instagram in particular—as a way to shit-stir envy and rage among my chef friends (and anyone else who’s paying attention) when I’m eating a perfectly fried whole artichoke in Rome, a pile of freshly cracked crabs in Seattle, or a pornographic selection of cheeses in France. I know well the seductive power of a visually stunning food image. But I also know that some of the most inherently delicious food has been pickled, butchered, braised, stewed, and/or charred in a way that maximizes flavor, visual appeal be damned.
Take char kway teow, my absolute favorite dish from Singapore, as a good example. Flat rice noodles, cockles or prawns, bean sprouts, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), and fish cakes are stir-fried with soy sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and pork fat. It’s uniformly brown, greasy, mushy, and, in general, not a looker. But it’s the first thing I go for in Singapore—or wherever else in the world I can find it—and it delivers a wallop of smoke, porkiness, fishy brine, and satisfying chew.
It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that limp, brown, stewy, soupy, unlovely-but-delicious food is often the food of poverty, or at least of necessary thrift. Feet, heads, snouts, organs, and tails are, of course, cheaper than whole-muscle meats. But when treated right—which is most often to say, when cooked slow and low, with plenty of aromatics and seasonings—the surrounding fat and connective tissue contribute greatly to hearty, satisfying flavor and mouthfeel. Chinese duck tongues with spicy mustard; Hungarian goulash; Indian fish-head curry from Kerala; Tuscan pork braised in milk; or a rich, black bowl of Brazilian feijoada—this humble, homely stuff is what most of the world really always has eaten, long before rainbow bagels and all other manner of look-at-me consumption.
A centerfold-worthy, rare rib eye steak is a social-media no-brainer with a high price tag (and, if you’re that guy, a dozen excruciating hashtags). At a fraction of the cost to cook, a pot of earthy trippa alla Romana demands technical skill, patience, and the clarity of vision to recognize that, sometimes, the “ugly but good” guts are the glory. —As told to Laurie Woolever