Zarajos - Gastro Obscura
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In Cuenca, chefs transform offal into succulent tapas.

Outside of Spain, the concept of “tapas” has become inexorably linked to sleek wine bars, degustation, and late-night flamenco shows. But tapas cannot be so over-simplified or easily categorized. Enter, zarajos. Originally from the city of Cuenca, this offal-based dish emerged from the “waste not, want not” philosophy, but has since become a common sight in both trendy and homely tapas bars across central Spain.

Zarajos are made from the intestines of a suckling lamb that have been marinated in its natural juices. If you’re feeling a little fancier, some taverns marinate them in a mixture of garlic, onion, parsley, and white wine. Chefs then wrap the meat around skewers made from vine branches to form a thick ball and either fry it in hot olive oil until golden or cook it in a smoky oven.

The crispy balls of innards are traditionally served as tapas, often alongside garlicky dishes, such as ajoarriero (a sauce of garlic, potatoes, egg, and olive oil that usually tops cod). They are sometimes cooked as part of a broth with another “acquired taste” ingredient: caracoles (snails). Either way, zarajos have remained popular, thanks to their succulent earthiness and reasonable price.

Organ meat dishes, known as casquería, have been favorites in central Spain for centuries. Whereas seafood and rice dishes have defined the cuisine of the coastlines, the dry plateaus and mountains farther inland, by necessity, drew their fare from the farmyard. Though it’s now less common to see offal on the tapas menu, the tradition lives on through zarajos, callos a la Madrileña (tripe stew), and oreja a la plancha (grilled pork ear).

Need to Know

Zarajos are a sumptuous appetizer, to be enjoyed with a slice of lemon. Locals and tourists alike are careful, however, in choosing which restaurants they wish to order their zarajos from. Because of their offal nature, you’ll want to be sure you’re getting a fresh and well-cleaned product.

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