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More ethnic food tastes worth acquiring: Rabo encendido

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

We're on the second-to-last day of a week of posts celebrating unsung ethnic delicacies, this time those raw, cooked or canned meat dishes that don't look or sound great, but taste delicious.

Today's offering, rabo encendido, neither looks nor sounds good. Its name, which translates to "tail on fire," ranked third on a recent list of seven oddly named foods in Dominican cuisine.

But what sounds like a painful bovine affliction is in fact a tasty stew of beef oxtail in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. It's popular throughout the Caribbean, found in Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican cooking. As with other oxtail preparations around the globe, it's a dish born of necessity, the product of creative cooks who couldn't afford to waste a scrap of meat and made it taste good.

All that said, "tail on fire" is not the most appetizing thing to look at. The name is bad enough. There is the anatomical location of the tail to consider, not ideal. Then there are the knobby, irregularly shaped bones, which you must dig into to find the meat in the nooks and crannies.

Once you find it, though, it's brilliant. The meat on a good rabo encendido is moist, has a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and is well worth digging for. One can separate the true carnivores from the herbivorous wimps over a plate of rabo encendido. The carnivores will pick it clean; occasional meat eaters like me will get chided for leaving a meal's worth of meat on the bone.

One caveat: Rabo encendido is really not that "on fire." The Caribbean palate has a relatively low heat tolerance, so those accustomed to the spice level of Mexican food may want to doctor it with a little hot sauce. But the mild tomato-based sauce is good in its own right, seasoned with savory spices and the standard cooking base with onions, peppers and garlic known as sofrito.

It takes some work to make, so it's best tried at a restaurant. In Southern California, it's relatively standard fare at most traditional Cuban eateries. But here are recipes for a Cuban-style preparation and a Dominican-style one if anyone wants to try this at home.

Have an unattractive or unappetizing-sounding dish to share that's worth trying? Please post a suggestion.