Dish of the Week: Lamb-Brain Masala at Shan Grocery & Restaurant in Uptown

BY: Nathalie Lagerfeld | May 29, 2013
Dish of the Week: Lamb-Brain Masala at Shan Grocery & Restaurant in UptownA editor taste-tests some real brain food in Uptown. “I don’t think you’ll like that. I don’t even like that.” Our waiter’s skepticism was understandable. It’s probably not often that visitors to Shan Grocery & Restaurant (5060 N. Sheridan Rd.), an Indian-Pakistani eatery in Uptown, order the dish I’d just ordered. I told him it was for an article, but he still shook his head. “If you don’t like, I bring you something else,” he finally said, defeated, before he retreated back to the grocery section in the next room. The dish he objected to was mughuz masala—a traditional meal of lamb brains that have been boiled for hours, then simmered in spices. I’ve wanted to try it ever since reading Michael Nagrant’s claim that Shan’s version tastes like “a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs." I’d never had brains before, but now that Next has served squab brain to hordes of customers—it was part of the restaurant’s The Hunt menu—the idea of even eating gray matter is starting to seem a little less out there. So I decided to head to Uptown for a taste test. I’m not a stunt eater: I’ll never chomp down something for novelty value alone. But if something weird seems like it might taste delicious, I am all in. The key to such deliciousness is good cooking, and the signs at Shan Grocery & Restaurant were promising from the start. Our waiter delivered a pair of enormous complimentary samosas whose crisp crusts were studded with whole carom seeds, which added a subtle note of spice. As another Bollywood music video looped onto the flat-screen behind me, I started to get excited about the main meal. When my plate arrived, my dining companion Anna and I examined it carefully. The brains, which had been chopped into small chunks, were visually indistinguishable from shredded paneer or tofu. Maybe the most noticeable characteristic was the copious oil, which formed a ring around the edge of the white porcelain dish. I was very hungry by this point, so I grabbed a triangle of naan and scooped up a bite. “This is pretty good!” I exclaimed, stuffing more of the piping-hot, spicy stuff into my mouth. As I said, I was very hungry. The brains weren’t at all rubbery, as I’d feared; the extensive boiling had given them a supple texture not unlike soft tofu. Once Anna pricked her courage and took a bite, she agreed that the brains were unobtrusive. “If someone served me this at a party, I wouldn’t notice,” she said. What was noticeable, though, was the spice, which was rich and unusually fragrant; by the time I’d finished half the bowl, I could feel a mild chili warmth creeping up through my sinuses. Our waiter couldn’t tell me what spices went into the sauce, but I can tell you it tasted rich and earthy, with just the slightest lemony bite. I’ll be honest with you—I didn’t clean my whole plate. Not because it wasn’t tasty, but because I was getting full. Lamb brains may not be rubbery, but they are very rich in cholesterol and fat. According to Self magazine’s nutrition calculator, 1 pound of lamb brain, cooked down, contains about 35 grams of fat—a whopping 54% of the daily value for a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s a lot more than soft tofu. Cutting each bite with some naan—which, at Shan, is dry and light—helps counteract the richness a bit. Overall, though, brains might be easier to savor in squab-sized portions. Next time, I’ll stick with them as a side dish.