Philly food and drink scene

In two South Philly restaurants, cooking with blood runs in the family

From sausage at Gabriella’s Vietnam to cannoli at Ember & Ash, pig’s blood is sweet, unexpected, and rooted in tradition.

Blood sausage in the vermicelli platter at Gabriella's Vietnam and in a coconut broth at Ember & Ash

Blood sausage in the vermicelli platter at Gabriella's Vietnam and in a coconut broth at Ember & Ash

Gabriella's Vietnam; Ember & Ash

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If you’re hesitant to try a dish cooked with blood, chef Dave Feola recommends thinking of it like this: What makes a rare steak taste better than a well-done one?

“It’s the blood,” said Feola, who is co-owner of Ember & Ash on East Passyunk, adding that it’s a superb natural flavor agent. “If you eat meat, chances are blood has already been part of your diet for a long time.”

Blood has been part of diets for millennia, appearing in cultures across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Throughout history, it was common for people to use as much of the animal as they could — blood included. One of the world’s oldest-known recipes, a 4,000-year-old lamb stew from Mesopotamia, references a blood-based broth.

Feola’s favorite is pig’s blood, which he says tastes earthy and relatively sweet. When he and biz partner Scott Calhoun launched at the start of 2021, they knew they wanted it on the menu.

The ingredient fits Ember & Ash’s focus on “peasant food” and use of animal bits that are often discarded, like the shin of a cow or the tongue of a lamb. It’s also something Feola remembers from childhood meals from his Italian grandmother.

“My grandmother cooked offals all the time,” said Feola, describing how she would drive 45 minutes from their hometown in upstate New York just to buy pig’s blood from a German butcher.

Blood is a mainstay of Vietnamese cooking, said Thanh Nguyen, chef-owner of Gabriella’s Vietnam, also on East Passyunk Avenue. It appears in everyday dishes like Vietnamese pig’s blood sausages, she said, as well as those served on special occasions, like tiết canh, a raw blood soup.

Like Feola, Nguyen learned recipes from her elders. She watched her grandfather cook with blood when growing up in Vietnam, and she incorporates his Northern Vietnamese style of cooking into her menu. Everything served at her BYOB is made by hand, including the pig’s blood sausage.

“Making the blood sausage is labor intensive. It’s a step by step process.” explained Nguyen.

The precise technique can take years to master, she said. Where to cut the animal, how to collect the blood so it doesn’t congeal, determining which intestine parts to use, and the preparation itself all must happen in a specific order and a specific timeframe. One misstep can change the whole flavor.

But if all goes right, the result of the effort is clear: a peppery, salty, and slightly sweet sausage that has a unique taste and texture.

On the current menu at Gabriella’s, you can try Nguyen’s pig’s blood sausage in the vermicelli platter called bún dậu mắm tôm.

A few blocks north at Ember & Ash, pig’s blood is on offer in the form of spaetzle (dumplings), currently served with duck’s breast. A pig’s blood sausage is also in regular rotation.

Other applications are more unexpected — like when it pops up in a dessert.

Last year, Ember & Ash teamed up with gelato maker Janine Bruno (of Homemade by Bruno) to develop a pig’s blood gelato. The result looks like a typical, creamy chocolate gelato, but with a flavor reminiscent of Feola’s grandmother’s sanguinaccio dolce, a traditional Southern Italian blood pudding.

These days, you’ll find cannoli with pig’s blood ricotta on the menu. It’s thick and savory, perfect for restaurant-goers who like their desserts less sweet, and filled with tradition.

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