What’s your beef?
June Lee tries to explain her high-steaks love affair, and where it’s headed.
Ionce astounded my fellow diners (and impressed the chef) by correctly guess-timating the weight of the bone-in steak on my plate. They, fellow journalists specialising in different fields and with no particular preference for red meat, had never ventured to think so deeply about meat to the point of dissecting every aspect of it. Truth be told, it’s the culmination of a lifetime obsessing over steak – identifying the cut, eyeballing the thickness and doneness, judging the amount of remaining juices vis-àvis the doneness and the muscle content of the cut, leading to an educated guess as to its weight pre- and post-cooking. It’s no party trick, but something I’ve developed along the way to becoming a super-devoted fan of steak and eating it correctly (more on that later).
The incident I mentioned occured in Argentina during a deeply immersive wine journey, and while the vinous side of my brain was fully engaged, my gustatory senses were in heaven. This is a country that knows how to raise its cattle, and butcher and cook each piece just right over flame on a parilla. I would gladly move to Argentina (or next to an authentic Argentine restaurant), simply to eat asado de tira forever, that uniquely Argentinian cut
of chuck ribs, cross-cut into a 1-inch high strip of nobbly ribs, a weave of fabulous flavour erupting from connective membrane tissue, fat and chewy meat, each bite bursting with deep flavour from being next to the bone, with a crisp Maillard crust.
Close, but not quite the same, is Korean kalbi, which holds a dear place in my heart for its accessibility and familiar Asian flavours. This shortrib is cut much thinner, at quarter-inch, and marinated with fragrant Korean pear, soy and sesame oil. While Japan’s Wagyu breeds are well known for their oily marbling, Korea’s Hanwoo breeds are equally marbled but with added robust beefiness that stands up to the grill, as I discovered when I visited in 2010. Eat up while in Korea, as the overwhelming local demand means Hanwoo isn’t found anywhere else.
While I have enjoyed well-butchered and terrifically cooked steak in New York, Paris and London, it is the Spanish-speaking nations that truly moo-ve me. Humble arrachera in Mexico and chuléton from older cows in Spain (average 10 years old, vs the usual three to five in the U.K.) still linger in my beefy memories. Arrachera is proper skirt steak, well marinated and freshly grilled till just pink inside, and served with avocado, a whole roasted onion and tortillas. You might be familiar with the Texmex version: fajita. In Spain, the ultimate steak – called the world’s best by steak cognoscenti – is chuléton de buey, a masterfully dry-aged extra-thick ribsteak slow-grilled over a wood fire. When I was in Galicia in 2014, I came across a specimen so perfectly hung, its meat tantalised with the odorous funk of blue cheese – and I still dream of that taste.
Although lauded for our culinary scene, Singapore can be a depressing place for a worldly steak lover. Though we can (and do) import the best Matsusaka Ushi and Ohmi Wagyu from Japan, U.S.D.A. Prime, Wagyu hybrids from Australia, and even a bit of Argentinian, French Limousin, Scottish Angus and U.K. shorthorn, the long chain from paddock to plate often runs up cost, loses quality, and presses up against all kinds of challenges.
Just last week at a reputable French restaurant, the waitress could not have been more clueless. I had to point to the line on the menu so that she could identify which steak I ordered, and then had to prompt her to ask for doneness. After having to coach her on what doneness is to boot, she brightly suggested that I have my ribeye well done, because “us Asians cannot take so bloody”. The cherry on the cake? Noticing that the only other Asian diners in the dining restaurant had sent back their steak because it was still pink.
I admit I’m a snob, but there's no other way to eat ribeye except medium rare and under. If that’s not for you, please order the braised beef cheek and stop wasting the ribeye. It’s akin to putting ice in Lafite or wearing Loboutins to the fish market. Great if you can afford it, but for crying out loud, please savour every bit of it.
I say this with all the loving kindness in the world. There just isn’t enough good quality beef to go around at a decent price anymore. According to the South China Morning Post, China was the world’s second largest beef importer last year, buying more than 800,000 tonnes worth US$2.6 billion. Cattle quality, much like any agricultural product that’s been genetically modified to produce more quantity over taste, is being diluted – with a clear and widening gap between pasture-raised and feedlot herds, to put it in the broadest possible terms. Being a conscious foodie also means knowing that our food sources are becoming ever more unsustainable and tainted. Farming meat places great stress on the environment with some one billion cows raised annually for the slaughter, yet food wastage continues to be a rising problem. Yet here I am, still stubbornly clinging on to the most delicious food I could ever dream of having. Steak, the king of all meats and what most high-end menus are built around. Steak, preferably bone-in rib or ribeye, slow-grilled over wood fire, with flavour that comes from the inside, its muscle fibres releasing more beefiness as you chew, independent of any sauces or seasonings. Steak, oh steak, if I’m to eat less of you, then I will only have the best.
After having to coach her on what doneness is to boot, she brightly suggested that I have my ribeye well done, because “us Asians cannot take so bloody”.