Where’s the Beef?

My wife is a vegetarian, so I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meat. I lust after it. I make elaborate plans for preparing it; the way I’d lovingly caress the supple flesh, gently rubbing in the dry spices, or how I’d pound a center-cut shank with my meat mallet until it yielded to my will and became the soft piece of beef I want. Don’t even get me started on boozy marinades, the combination of alcohol and beef could have me on an hours-long flight of fancy.

When I say I dream about meat I mean beef. No point fantasizing about chicken breasts. I come from Western Canadian, farming and ranching country. Beef really is the only meat there. Pork—the other white meat—is suitable for health freaks. Chicken and fish? Those are practically vegetables, appropriate for the daintiest of lady’s, hippies and assorted pansies. Beef. Grass-fed. Well-aged. That’s a man’s meat.

Since Taiwan joined the WTO you can buy almost any food that you want [here]. Good quality beef is a bit of an exception. For a price excellent steaks in high-end restaurants can be found. I had one of the best steaks of my life in a Taipei restaurant. It cost as much as a quick trip to Hong Kong for British pub grub, but it’s available. However, if you’re just a dude with a hankering for a slab of well-marbled beef to throw on the barbie—good luck.

Local grocery stores mostly carry anonymously sourced frozen beef. It’s sliced paper thin for boiling in a hotpot. There might be some relatively thin steaks from Australia or the USA. If those countries are capable of producing a decent piece of beef they’re not sending it to Taiwan. It is some sad looking meat. The US beef that comes to Taiwan is all corn fed, so—as far as I’m concerned—relatively tender, distinctly tasteless, and suitable for the trashcan. On rare occasions I’ve run across a nice piece of Aussie beef that somehow accidentally got sent to Taiwan. However, generally the quality is low, usually just a mix of muscle and gristle with no marbling. Of course it’s unaged—it would waste time and space to age such a piece of beef. The end result is a piece of flavorless shoe leather.

There are a very small number of specialty butchers, where you may, on occasion, find good quality beef. I’m aware of one that sometimes has aged, grass-fed, Alberta beef. It is to die for. In recent years a number of high-end groceries have popped up around Taiwan that have decent Western products. Often you can find a respectable looking steak with the right buzzwords on the package; grass-fed, aged and flash frozen. I haven’t tried a lot of these, because when I start finding myself spending around 1000元 on a medium-sized piece of sirloin, I start thinking someone ought to be cooking it for me.

If you do find a restaurant that has decently sourced beef, there’s a good chance that they’ll do a nice job cooking it. It didn’t used to be that way. It was ridiculously difficult to get a restaurant to serve beef that hadn’t been dried out like a sun-bleached turd. The server practically went into paroxysms of fear if you asked for medium-rare or rarer. Inevitably, when the beef arrived it would be overcooked. Ironic considering undercooked chicken is common, but beef—you practically had to march into the kitchen and cook it yourself if you wanted it rare. With the influx of Western restaurants consumers seem to be more knowledgeable and most restaurants are now willing/able to cook beef to the customer’s preference. Fewer of rare beef also explains why it is hard to find a steak thick enough for grilling in Taiwan. Why cut your steaks 4-5 cm. thick—it just makes them harder to dry out.

There are some Taiwanese style “steakhouses” here. They serve a thin minute steak, with lots of sauce, on a hot cast iron griddle with an egg and a bit of spaghetti. It is very affordable. In my early days in Taiwan, back before Western restaurants were on Taipei’s every corner, I used to frequent 我家牛排 and similar local steak joints. It was a pale imitation of a steak dinner, but it was at least an imitation. Funnily, paralleling the interminable rumors in various Western cities of cat being served in this-or-that Chinese restaurant, there were constant rumors of horse being served in this-or-that Western-ish Taiwanese steakhouse. I found it reassuring to see whatever ridiculous culinary xenophobia fueled such rumors in Canada almost exactly paralleled in Taiwan.

Taiwan has become something of a foodie paradise, so why is it so hard to get good beef here? I believe it’s because the Taiwanese are just not that fond of beef. It does not play a starring role in Chinese cuisine. There is an emphasis in Chinese cooking on the importance of fresh ingredients. The idea is if it’s on the plate at lunch, it was clucking in the field at breakfast. That might be good for fish, and okay for chicken or pork, but beef doesn’t work that way. You’re not allowing its flavor to come to the fore. Of course you’re also left with a stunningly tough piece of meat. It’s truly a marvel how beef in Taiwan can be cut paper thin, boiled, and yet still be too tough to cut.

It is even a somewhat common practice in Taiwan to observe a prohibition on eating beef. It isn’t exactly a religious ban. The idea is that farmers rely on cows to help around the farm, thus as a mark of respect beef shouldn’t be eaten.  Many farm families observe this prohibition. They didn’t really rely on cows for help—those were water buffalo, a rather different thing. I think this practice exists because giving up beef is not a heart break for many Taiwanese.

Where’s the beef? Not here.

Gratuitous beef porn. Enjoy.