/ 17 November 2023

Restaurant craze red in tooth and claw

Food Friday Main1
Raw deal: Beef tartare is on many fine-dining menus. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

BARBARISM has long been defined by the kind of food taboos that the supposed barbarian breaks. 

As in: “Those people are barbarians, they eat cows.” Or: “Those people eat horses and frogs.” Or: “Those people eat dogs and cats.” And: “Those people eat pigs.” 

Rewind the tape a few centuries, and the accusation sometimes took a more hectic turn: “Those people eat people.” Which was a valid criticism, to be fair. 

Cut to 2023, and the bar of dietary barbarism is much lower. If you enjoy eating animals of any sentient species, you are now understandably unpopular among a vast community of vegetarians and vegans, not to mention the climate activists urging a human retreat from meat as a planet-saving imperative. 

Of course, this wave of conscience will not deter most of the world’s flesh-eating barbarians, no matter how ethically and scientifically compelling it is. 

Yes, the practice of eating meat is in some measure culturally trained and legitimated — today’s middle-class children are more likely to be vegetarian because they are granted more power to reject meat than my generation enjoyed, along with more information to guide their decisions. 

But there is another layer to the impulse — a biochemical one, which varies in strength from body to body. 

Human carnivorousness is pre-cultural as well as cultural — the legacy of a very long spell of omnivorous desperation in the blood-spattered forests of our evolutionary past. Big red crowds of calories spoke a very persuasive language to a hunter-gathering ape, and they still speak it. 

And then there’s another ancient genetic reflex we are saddled with — the rebellious urge to choose pleasure over virtue. 

So, for many of us, the very idea that red meat is fatally problematic, that it is yesterday’s protein, only adds a juice of transgressive joy to the spectacle of a plateful of it on one’s table. And if it’s raw, all the juicier. 

Steak tartare, the French early-20th-century hotel classic, is still a fixture on fine-dining menus from Seoul to Sydney to Santiago. 

Raw beef dishes in general are defiantly in vogue. Chefs love them, partly because they use up off-cuts from the rest of the meat menu and partly because they provide a rich and dramatic canvas for flavour experimentation. 

And the customers who order steak tartare love it because it presses various good buttons at once — it’s a bit wild, but also a bit cosy, and also a bit fancy. You know that you are properly out for dinner when you eat raw beef.  

And afterwards, you might find yourself convinced that you have secured your physical survival for several days to come. 

On the eve of a big high-school exam, my father used to serve us home-made steak tartare — he reckoned it would give us predatory mental sharpness. 

“It’s a kick in the ass!” he said. 

We dutifully ate it, while quietly thinking that the kick in the ass provided by a well-done cheeseburger would have been just as firm.  

But nowadays I get what he was on about. The long-term health benefits of raw meat are debatable — but the short-term energy bump is real. 

In Joburg, you can order first-rate steak tartare in several good restaurants — including an excellent Asian-inspired version served by Acid in Parktown North (see review on this page) in which the meat is adorned with a soy-cured raw egg yolk and instilled with togarashi, a Japanese spice mix that starts quietly and then hits the back of your net with the elegant shock of a Kaoru Mitoma goal. 

For another raw-red contender, go to Little Addis, facing 44 Stanley in Braamfontein Werf, where you can order Ethiopian kitfo — raw beef with Ethiopian butter (niter kibbeh) and a complex seasoning. The softly fermented sourness of injera flatbread sharpens the fresh, lean tang of the beef. 

You can find beef or venison carpaccio at any one of Joburg’s catalogue of proper Italian places. As far as raw meat goes, carpaccio might be termed entry-level;  the thinness and relative dryness of the slices makes the whole experience a shade tamer. But not any less delicious. 

I have struggled to find yukhoe on any of Joburg’s Korean menus — but the traditional yukhoe marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and sugar sounds eminently doable at home. 

Which raises the obvious question: is it safe to make your own raw beef dishes? Absolutely, provided you use good-quality fresh steak, and slice or grind it yourself. Never use store-bought beef mince. Pathogens such as  salmonella and E. coli emerge after exposure to air, so you need to serve your dish soon after preparation, preferably using cold dishes and utensils. 

Needless to say, the cow you’re eating should have lived a good life, eating grass in big fields, and then been slaughtered as humanely as possible.  Acid’s Doveton buys from Impala Butchery in Northcliff, which stocks Boomplaats organic-certified beef and other ethically produced meats.  

Because even barbarians need principles.