Assorted Livestock 1: Beef (牛肉)

“The way to purchase beef is as follows: First, one must go to all the butchers in the market and put down enough money in order to reserve that cut of beef sandwiched between the back legs’ tendons that is neither to lean nor too fat. Bring this cut of beef home and slice off any sinew or membranes, then take three parts wine and two parts water to braise it until soft. Reduce the cooking liquid and add autumn sauce.

Note that beef has a rather unique and distinct flavour that should not be accompanied with other ingredients.”

雜牲單::牛肉
買牛肉法,先下各鋪定錢,湊取腿筋夾肉處,不精不肥;然後帶回家中,剔去皮膜,用三分酒、二分水清煨極爛;再加秋油收湯。此太牢獨味孤行者也,不可加別物配搭。

A twined beef top round. Yuan Mei’s chunk of meat may or may not be inside this hunk of meat. (Credit: Colin Henein)

One gets the sense from reading this that beef is eaten rarely in Qing dynasty China. Not only does it necessitates an explanation on how to purchase it, but also that the desired cut of beef must be purchase from every butcher at the market to have enough for the dish. It is also clear that Yuan Mei considered the choicest part in the entire 800kg beast is this small cut of meat likely found inside the round.

All this is interesting, but what stands out most for me is contrasting how Yuan Mei highly regards this cut of beef from the leg while Western cuisine tends to view it with some degree of indifference. In fact, this puts into the spotlight somewhat fundamental differences in cultural preference in animal portions and cuts. For instance, beef and pork tendons sell at quite a premium in East Asia due to their scarcity. Fish heads and skin are highly regarded and eaten as a delicacy. In Western cuisine these rather choice parts are basically discarded or ground-up and turned into meat fillers. And let’s not get started about the North American silliness of favouring chicken white meat over dark.

That’s not to say that it has not been beneficial for those living in Western countries with East Asian preferences. Family friends in Vancouver said that in the early 1970’s you used to be able to go down to the local fishmonger and pick up a large plastic bag of salmon heads for a quarter or for free. Butchers everywhere in Canada and the US, even in large urban centres, used to give away beef tendons if you asked for it. Even more crazy was that my uncle used to be able to buy beef shanks for next to nothing in Sacramento and Ames.

Speaking of beef shanks, the recipe above will actually work well for cooking well exercised cuts of meat in from the legs. The only thing I would add would be star anise and Szechuan peppercorns during the braising. Stop cooking while the beef is not too soft, cool it, slice it thinly, and then serve it with chili oil in the manner of fuqi feipian (夫妻肺片).

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