Samui Wining & Dining
The Beefeaters of Thailand

Is it all just about status, or is it necessary for our top restaurants to import their beef?

 

8Beef. It’s a tricky subject. And it means all things to all men – women too! In many parts of the world today, the healthy lifestyle has swung towards lean meat and fish. And the Australians just love their ‘barbies’. But when it comes to America, there’s no two ways about it. This is a land of beef eaters. Last year alone the USA chomped its way through a staggering 52 billion pounds of beef. That’s around 270 pounds a person – an average of almost 12 ounces (340 gms) every day for each man, woman and child. And any old beef simply won’t do. All in all, there are tens of millions of people who will readily sling a rough, tough hunk of beef right back at the chef, pretty damn quick!

      Thailand has many nice things. The weather, the people, the carefree lifestyle, fabulous food, a low cost of living. But there are a few things it’s lacking, at least for us farangs. Dairy products, for one – and that runs over into chocolate and ice-cream. Sighing loudly and moving on fast . . . another noteworthy item is beef. (OK, mutton, too, and maybe one or two others, but let’s keep to the point.) Let’s qualify that last one: Thailand has beef, but it’s not very good – although that’s something of a generalisation.

      To be more precise, there are several excellent breeds of beef animals in Thailand. But the ones that are seen everywhere, and the meat of which you’ll find in your curries, are the Brahmans. This breed, which originally came out of India, is tough and insensitive to high temperature and humidity, and can get by with munching more or less anything green. And that’s the first problem: they’re left to graze upon anything that’s handy. Australian and American beef cattle are usually corn-fed and generally pampered; the resulting flavour of the meat is quite different.

      And the other big difference is due to the climate. Begin with a low grade of animal, add poor feed, inadequate nutrition, a lack of comfortable grazing sources, shelter and adequate water – which is not the best of starts anyway. And then slaughter them and get them to market immediately before they start to stink. Oh dear! All of this is why a mouthful of Thai beef can take half an hour to chew. After slaughter, the breakdown of oxygen in the animal’s blood produces lactic acid, and it is this that tenderises the meat, adding flavour along the way. This continues as the beef is left to hang, the flesh changing colour as it does so. Three or four days in a low temperature environment, like a big refrigerator, completes the process. And this just doesn’t happen with everyday Thai beef.

      In fact, there is a strong movement afoot, in the northern regions of Thailand, to establish quality beef cattle. One company in particular, ‘Thai French’ in Udon Thani, has been breeding such cattle for quite some time, mingling the hardiness of the Brahman and Shahiwal strains with Charolais, Angus and Friesians. Reports are highly favourable, but this is only a drop in the ocean compared to the sheer tonnage of tough, stringy Thai beef that’s going around and, as far as I know, none of this high quality beef seems to be shipping to other areas of the Kingdom.

       The other factor that affects the quality of the meat is what part of the animal it comes from. The front part of the animal is generally tougher (and therefore cheaper), whereas the rear quarters are more succulent. The toughness or stringiness is caused by inter-muscle connective tissue – of which the main component is collagen. The best cuts (tenderloin, sirloin) contain hardly any of this, making them a good place to start. And yes, even Thai beef, if cooked appropriately, can be succulent and tender (although the flavour varies quite a bit). The secret is to hit a balance between temperature and the time of cooking, heating the meat until the connective tissue breaks down and the collagen is transformed into gelatin. Most often, that means braising. But while that time-proven technique certainly takes care of the collagen, it has trade-off effects as well. The meat turns brown as the myoglobin (which makes the meat red) is exposed to excessive heat, and it dries out as the water-holding capacity of the meat is greatly reduced. Is it all worth it? You’d need the patience and dedication of a saint to go though all this.

       Talking of which brings to mind the eventual demise of St. Lawrence, patron saint of barbecue and griddle chefs. His manner of dying was unusually fiery: he was roasted alive over hot coals. Yet he maintained the cheer to murmur crisply, “I’m well done. Turn me over and do the other side.” Which is not entirely unconnected with the suffering experienced while trying to conjure a silky steak out of a Thai rump-cut. It can be done. Although, even if you can get it so that it’s fairly tender, you’ll still end up with a notable lack of flavour due to the livestock’s haphazard nourishment to begin with. So what’s the point of going through all of this when you can simply buy good meat to begin with?

         And, indeed you can, although it’s never used in small Thai street restaurants. At one time imported beef from Australia and New Zealand was a rare delicacy on Samui. But today just about every half-decent eatery will have it on the menu; there are so many gourmet importers on the island now. And even the big supermarkets stock a limited range of (frozen) cuts. All this is now quite usual. So much so that we’ve already moved onto the next phase. Giant juicy steaks are ten a penny. So let’s hear it for the Japanese (and Australian) strains of prime wagyu beef that everyone seems to be after. It’s so astonishingly tender you can cut it with a spoon. My granddad doesn’t even need his dentures for this delicacy – yet another person who’s been added to the ranks of the beefeaters in Thailand!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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