Beef in Asian Cuisine
Beef may be “the soul of cooking” in the West (as the great nineteenth-century French chef Marie-Antoine Caréme put it), but in Asia it is a relatively new ingredient.
Uneconomical to raise in areas of scarce pasturage, beef had not been that readily available in vast parts of Asia up until the recent globalization of our times.
Abhorred as a food source by Buddhist tradition, beef became a part of many Asian cuisines only after its introduction by the European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There are reports that in those early times, Asians despised these eaters of red meat for their “disagreeable” body odor.
In most of Asia, even today, cattle is generally considered too precious a beast of burden to be slaughtered and eaten, and therefore there are relatively few beef dishes in the cuisines of these countries.
Beef being cooked for eating in Japan is traditionally dated to the 1850s, when a cow was butchered for the table of an American consul. The event was immortalized by the raising of a monument by Japan’s butchers’ association. The Emperor of Japan first ate beef in 1872. Today, Kobe beef, considered the world’s best, comes from Japan. Steers of Kobe are hand-fed on Kirin beer, massaged daily, and given individual care. The result is an astronomically expensive beef that is incredibly tender, exquisitely flavored, and richly marbled. It is not an everyday dish.
The Spanish colonization of the Philippines influenced the cuisine of that nation heavily, and it is there, more than anywhere else in Asia, that the eating of beef and veal is relatively common. Later American influence refined Filipino beef cookery.
Throughout the rest of Asia, beef is the aristocrat of modern cuisine. From Kobe or elsewhere, it is an expensive meat, and its appearance on the table signals a celebration or a feast.
For Asians, as one Japanese historian has remarked, “to eat beef is a sign of an advanced state of civilization.”