What’s your beef?

June Lee tries to ex­plain her high-steaks love af­fair, and where it’s headed.

Epicure - - CONTENTS -

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”.

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