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The Last Contrarian
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Let’s talk VLEIS!

20 November 2012, 07:16

Contrary to popular western belief, Singapore is not a noodle slurping, green tea sipping, spring roll-munching society. Top celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain (and others) rate Singapore as ‘one of the best’ countries to visit if you absolutely love food! It does not matter if your fancy is western or eastern, local or international; Singapore has it! The affluent culture and refined tastes of Singaporeans have driven up the demand for and the supply of the very best dishes the culinary world has to offer!

Singapore is a food-obsessed culture; there can be no arguing that fact. Singaporeans (me included) spend their nights and their cash seeking out and sampling the finest cuisine from every hawker center, restaurant, or retail store in Singapore. And unlike many western countries, in Singapore, you don’t need to spend a fortune to enjoy food fit for royalty. Against my will and despite my best efforts not to succumb, Singapore has turned me into one of those opinionated ‘food critics’ who can never stop talking about where you can get the best grub and graze for your coin.

Today’s subtopic is calculatedly anti-vegetarian in nature, as it deals exclusively with vleis, njama, or meat!

I suppose I can never evict from my memory my first (and last) flight out of SA…. I recall how I lamented the thought of giving up all that A-grade South African meat! As a white South African, one of the few crumbs of pride I retain in my country of birth is our uninhibited, barbaric consumption of heart-stopping quantities of red meat! What can possibly beat a South African ‘braai’ with a lekker thick blue-bull steak on the coals? What can beat the ‘secret recipe’ boerewors of the town butcher? (There’s a sausage masterpiece in every town in South Africa.) And biltong… ahhh biltong—how I miss thee—before, during, and after the big game! What South African cannot be proud of our culinary mastery of meat?

We South Africans know that our beef is world-renowned and savoured in the finest restaurants on planet earth! South African beef is so consistently high quality that it enjoys uninhibited export abroad while other countries (e.g., US and UK) face occasional bans on their meat exports because of yet another mad-cow disease outbreak—reinforcing demand (and respect) for South African meat! At least, that is what we South Africans are led to believe... and it is pure, uncensored, uncontestable nonsense!

I can tell you from my personal pursuits, I can’t find any South African-reared meat in any store or restaurant in Singapore. The only South African products I can find here are some export wines and Ceres fruit juice. So, what went wrong then? Where is our illustrious A-grade SA meat ending up? It is not ending up in Singapore; I can assure you of that fact!

South African meat is, deservingly, only loved, revered, and consumed in South Africa. The legend surrounding our meat was carefully and deceitfully constructed by South African butchers who knew their products but a grade above dog food. They, predictably, marketed this ‘top quality’ myth to the point where it became pompous patriotic pride! We were all reared (quite literally) on shameful marketing tactics. There is only one person as deceitful and untrustworthy as the town preacher, and that is the town butcher!

But I assure you; the lies and deception don’t stop there. Not only are you being lied to about the quality and reverence of your meat, but you are also being lied to about the size and diversity of your cuts! A T-bone steak in South Africa is a misnomer if there ever existed one. The first time I had a real T-bone steak, in Astons Prime, a US Steakhouse franchise in Singapore, I almost thought I was being made the victim of a candid camera jest. It was the biggest piece of meat I had ever seen next to a properly sized Blue-bull steak!

A real T-bone steak has a big flap of tender meat right of the bone. If that flap I mentioned is missing, it is called a club steak! The shape of a T-bone steak is triangular and the meat extends well beyond the bone. It makes a South African T-bone steak look like a little lamb chop! Every T-bone I ever ordered in a restaurant or bought from the butcher in South African was, in fact, a club steak, but packaged, priced and sold as a T-bone steak! I presume this practice started so long ago in the South African meat market that even butchers themselves don’t know the difference anymore.

The South African menus are also missing a few critical contributions to the steak lineup. How often do you encounter these ‘prime cut’ steaks on South African menus or butcheries:

·         Tenderloin

·         Chateaubriand

·         Mignon

·         Tournedos

·         Top Loin

·         Rib Roast

·         Rib eye (I only saw a rib eye steak once in SA at a place called ‘Heat Grill’)

·         Sirloin

·         Porterhouse

South Africa has also learned the fine art of ripening steaks, but you only have one kind of ripening: hang it on a rod until it starts to stink! In Singapore, we have meat aged either by freeze drying or wet aging. I tend to prefer the latter as it produces a very tender steak with a concentrated flavor.

Quality is a prime factor in what beef makes it into the top steakhouses in Singapore, and quality depends on the breed of the bovine, as well as the feed given to it while it still drew breath. In some cases, the rearing method (especially for Japanese wagyu beef) can be something akin to obsessive artistry! Singapore’s quality beef is air flown (not shipped) to ensure freshness and undelayed attention from the master chefs who will convert it into the culinary gems that demanded by the distinguished pallets of Singaporeans! Here are some of the species I’ve happily had a part in consuming:

·         Black Angus – Rated as the highest quality beef by Michelin chefs, it has the perfect mix of fat and tenderness to produce the very best steaks known to humankind

·         Commercial-grade Wagyu – A highly marbled, supremely delicate beef that comes either from Japan (where it originated) or Australia (reproduced by exacting standards using pedigree Wagyu bovine)

·         Angus (regular, not black) – while not in the league of Black Angus, this beef is still rated as some of the best eating you can have… regardless of what kind of steak you are having

·         Various Australian cattle on numerous feeding programs – all of them exceeding SA’s A-grade beef

Feeding methods I’ve tried:

·         Grain fed

·         Grass fed

·         Chocolate fed (yes indeed, wagyu bovine are often fed chocolate to help them fatten up)

So much for the legendary South African bramaan bul and its prime cut, the Blou-bul steak (a sinewy, tough, and tasteless cut, which is why it is ALWAYS heavily marinated and vacuum packed to try to impart some flavor to the meat). Take away the spices and you have something that tastes like shoe leather, at least by Black Angus standards.

Another fallacy of South African steakhouses is the glorification that is given to the meat part of the dish. The difference between a good steak and a great steak is often found in what side dishes feature with the steak on your plate. Steak can have a wide variety of accompaniments, but these should reflect the quality of the meat. In SA, the norm is a 500g steak with oily fries, a bland baked potato, or soggy veggies. Some steakhouses in SA get it right (definitely not Spur), but not many, and not at a particularly accessible price either—you folks are paid in Rands, after all ;)

Perhaps the most upsetting thing I have discovered about the South African approach to meat is the blatant, inexcusable racism with which mutton is treated. Burned to a crisp or roasted for Christmas with an overpowering garlic flavor, mutton in SA is treated as an appetiser or side-dish for the almighty steak! This is such a sad thing as Lamb can be every bit as tender, flavourful, and satisfyingly meaty as the best steak out there!

My first experience of this revelation was at a Brazillian meat buffer in Singapore called ‘The Carnivore’. The lamb I was server was from New Zealand and… PURPLE! I am not joking! But once took a bite, it sparked an obsession in me to seek out the very best lamb chops in Singapore. My absolute favourite is a lamb chop made by Amara Hotel. It is served one way: medium-raw, with nothing but the crosshatched scorch marks (those diamond shaped marks) of the grill visible on it. Many nights I push away an Angus steak to have three of these beauties!

I left something out, didn’t I? Ahhh, yes… boerewors! Surely, I could not find a suitable substitute for this traditional favourite of the white South African diet. Actually, I was never a particular fan of boerewors, as it was always prepared in an amateurish fashion: it was either too dry or too wet, never just right. Besides, I have an obfuscating variety of German, Danish, Swedish, American, Italian, Chinese, etc. sausages to choose from in restaurants and stores, and I have found more than a few that make it across my pallet without causing offence.

To end off, while meat in Singapore is somewhat on the expensive side, I hear that South African prices are catching up fast! Soon you will be paying top dollar (sorry, but the Rand is now just a bad memory to me) for meat that barely passes as fit for human consumption! Eina indeed!

Disgruntled meat connoisseurs in SA may now reason to themselves that I am just an argumentative expat who is taking a stab at a SA over some psychological shortcoming or dietary deficiency I am suffering of in my foreign country. I assure you my intentions are not to brag or to belittle but to dispel myths and bring South Africans closer to reality and international standards. I can’t do it for you politically, or socially, so I might as well start with what you eat and work my way from there.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and learned something new, albeit a bit upsetting. Enjoy that SPAR or SPUR steak… if you can!

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