At the time of writing, I’ve been living in France for exactly two months. While we mostly don’t see eye to eye on what counts as decent Chinese food, we do share some views on one of the best ways to cook beef – not at all.
We used to make this dish quite often back in Australia – availability of beautiful fresh Harvey Beef for next to nothing pretty much defines “spoilt.” Add the proximity to seasoned Vietnamese market gardens in a Mediterranean climate, and you’ve pretty much got food nirvana on your hands. Yeah that’s right France, I said it.
European steak tartare is seasoned with things like cornichons, paprika, olive oil, capers, and flat-leaf parsley. Some recipes call for something acidic as well, and some add something spicy as well. We looked at those traditional recipes and thought we could probably turn our gwai lo hands to it. We took a pretty standard European recipe, matched up flavour types, and swapped them out. Smoky for smoky, spicy for spicy, fragrant for fragrant, sour for sour. The addition of lime juice in our recipe adds a gentle chemical cook to the whole experience. Combined with the lively fresh flavours in the seasonings and the way the meat is handled before chopping, it almost doesn’t come across like a raw meat dish. We also serve it with good-quality plain salted crisps for a bit of crunch and salt.
This is pretty much the most important part. Buy pet-grade meat, and you’re basically polishing a turd. I was lucky enough to be able to buy whole fillets and use the thin end, but basically as long as you’re buying nice tender steak cuts with just a tiny little bit of marbling, you should be fine. Spend up, you won’t regret it.
To feed two people I normally cut enough meat to fill a little rice bowl to a nice thick dome on top. I cut the section of fillet that I need, and dry it out on paper towel for as long as I can spare. If I’m thinking ahead, I’ll do this the night before – pile up 3 or 4 paper towels on a plate, put the meat on, put another layer on top, cling wrap it and leave it in the fridge overnight. If things are a bit more spur-of-the-moment, drying for a couple of hours before chopping is fine. Either way, this isn’t supposed to be a bloody dish, save that for the barbecue.
Even if you’re some kind of serial killer and have a mincing machine at home, don’t use it. Save it for hamburgers, spaghetti sauce, or dead hookers. For this job you want a nice big sharp kitchen knife or two. I’m personally a one-knife guy. I’ll have a post up pretty soon about my fundamental kitchen equipment in detail, but for a job like this, you really can’t go past a Chinese chef’s knife. I use a medium-weight general purpose knife – light enough to use for everything, but heavy enough to chop through poultry bones as well. One day I’ll pick up a chopper as well, but for now, this baby’s all I need.
The meat needs to be chopped to what I call “pretty fine.” A little chunkier than minced meat, but way finer than a dice. The way I work is to cut strips lengthways in the grain of the meat, leaving it in one piece at the thick end for some grip, then chopping across the grain. Once I’ve got a pile of chopped meat, I start working the cleaver across the pile, scooping it up with the flat of the blade and turning it before chopping across the pile. I saw the Iron Chef doing this with two cleavers, paradiddling his way across the pile. Tried it, it was loud. Fun, but loud. I live in an apartment now.
This is the fun bit. You’ll need to experiment with your mix, but here’s the rough quantities I use. Prepare them all first, then mix it all in once everything’s ready to go. I recommend getting a small frying pan going, and prepping things up in this order:
- About a tablespoon of sesame seeds (toast them in the pan dry until they’re a nice brown)
- About a pinky-knuckle sized pile of very finely chopped fresh ginger (this goes in the pan and gets toasted/dried after the sesame seeds come out.)
- 3 finely chopped spring onions/scallions (just the light green parts – you’ll end up chopping about 5cm of each one)
- Chopped coriander/cilantro leaves. Make a slightly bigger pile than the spring onion.
- Light soy sauce (a splash)
- Sesame oil (a little dribble)
- Chilli oil (you could use the dim sum stuff, but I reckon you can’t go past the home-primed stuff; I’ll go into details in my “Essentials” post. I use mostly the oil and just a pinch of the chunks. Works out to be a lightly loaded teaspoon.)
- Lime juice (cut a lime into quarters, one quarter not juiced too obsessive-compulsively will do your initial serving but FOR GODS SAKE ADD IT LAST, LIKE JUST BEFORE YOU EAT IT.)
The Preparation & Serving
Put the spoon away, you’re getting your hands dirty. Add meat. Add all seasonings except lime (save a sprinkle of sesame seeds as well). Mix with hands. For the sesame oil and soy sauce, you want to add enough to move through the meat, but not so much that it pools in the bowl. Soy is literally a splash. Oil tends to vary, depending on the coarseness of your chop and the texture of the meat itself. Either way, don’t go too heavy handed.
Once I’ve mixed them all up together, I squeeze it all back into that little rice bowl to shape it, then turn it out onto a big plate, surround it with crisps and give it a final dressing with a sprinkle of soy and that lime juice. Keep the soy bottle and the lime wedges handy, you’ll probably need to adjust it as you go.
Pile it onto the crisps, and start shoving. I’ll post a photo of it as soon as I find meat I’m satisfied with. Until then, look at my beautiful kitchen knives.