BEIRUT: An old adage has it that eating sheep’s brains will make you smarter. Less commonly said, however, is that the traditional Lebanese dish – called nikhaat – can also lead to high cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.At 1,800 milligrams per serving, the amount of cholesterol in the traditional fare is among the highest of any food, and is 1,500 milligrams higher than a healthy adult’s daily recommended intake. As a result, it has been forsaken by many Lebanese for more than the yuck factor.
Once available throughout the country – along with other offal such as sheep’s testicles and spinal marrow from both sheep and cows – sheep-brain sandwiches are now becoming harder to find. While many snack shops still grill up the delicacy, nikhaat has become a rarity on the traditional mezze menus at restaurants around Beirut.
Cooks at the popular Barbar takeaway chain said that two West Beirut branches still receive 40 orders a day for sheep brains in two common preparations: chopped up as a salad of sorts or in a sandwich with lemon and garlic.
Customers who gravitate toward nikhaat are mostly older gentlemen or young men, “perhaps hopeful that it will help them do better in school,” a Barbar cook quipped.
Similar in texture to scrambled eggs, sheep brains are relatively flavorless until dressed with acidic flavors like lemon, pickles or vinegar.
Licensed dietitian Lynn Charabaty said that, like most organ meats, sheep brains contain significant amounts of iron and zinc, as well as essential vitamins like B12 and folates.
Barbara Abdeni Massaad, author of the cookbook “Mezze: A Labor of Love,” called sheep brains the food of an older generation and said that customers at many restaurants around Beirut would need to request nikhaat ahead of time. Istambuli, one of the oldest restaurants in Ras Beirut, was once renowned for its sheep’s brains, but staff told The Daily Star that it had taken them off the menu due to lack of demand.
Massaad attributed the decline in interest to an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, that swept the world in the 1980s and affects a cow’s brain and spinal chord. Though once specific to cows, the disease has been discovered in sheep as well, leading the U.K. to ban the sale of the brains from sheep and cows over 1 year old.
Massaad said that, in addition to the threat of disease, sheep’s brains had also fallen out of favor due to their less than salubrious qualities.
“They have one of the highest amounts of cholesterol of any food,” she said.
Despite her own aversion, Massaad bent to local tradition and included a lamb’s brains recipe in her cookbook. Her recipe for nikhaat calls for freshness, setting the shelf life of brain at “24 hours at most” because “it is one of the most fragile parts of the animal.”
She also recommends you treat your butcher kindly so he will remove the pesky “little red nerves in between the blood vessels,” which can put many off.
To cook, the brain should be placed in cold water and brought to a boil. At this point, it should be possible to remove the membrane that encases it.
Then it can be seasoned and simmered in water for about 10 minutes, breaded and fried, or grilled. All preparations are served with a generous squirt of lemon juice.
The finished product should have a creamy, light texture with a mild taste. While they should be cooked through, brains can turn chewy when overcooked or if not eaten shortly after being cooked.
However nikhaat is prepared, it is best enjoyed by quieting whatever thoughts you may have about it and keeping an open mind.