Several years ago at Man Kai, the restaurant I used to own in Zamalek, I was checking my monthly reports and decided to see how my customers preferred their steak. It was disheartening. Of the 60 beef fillets we had sold that month, 59 were requested well done. I knew then that I had to get out of the business.
Meat tastes good. We are omnivores and we have been into meat for a couple of million years. Eventually, about 150,000 years ago, we figured out that it was really good when we applied some fire to it. Arguably cooking meat is the quintessential human trait. Other animals have their own language, consciousness, can solve problems and use tools. Even a chimpanzee can talk on the phone, smoke a cigarette, and apply her makeup while cruising the ring road at 120kph.
But we alone in the animal kingdom learned how to cook, and the social effects have been far-reaching. It transformed us into communal beings. The ancient Chinese divided barbarian tribes into the “raw” and the “cooked”, depending upon their degree of civilisation. Cooking became a shared ritual that created bonds and enhanced our ability to communicate with one another.
This does not mean we all learned to cook well. A few months ago I went to Casper and Gambini’s for lunch, ordered a steak medium rare, and the chef refused to cook it that way. The same thing happened in Lucille’s. In both cases the so-called chefs—supported by a cast of mortified waiters and managers—claimed that it isn’t safe to eat meat unless it is well done—which is the same reason my customers ordered it that way.
This is nonsense. The only thing cooking it this way does is to extricate any possible pleasure one might get from eating it. Bacteria are on meat surfaces, not the insides; so a medium or rare steak is no more prone to making you ill than one that has been overcooked, and well done, my friends, is most decidedly overcooked.
I prefer my steak steak-flavoured: tender and juicy. If you are one of those who “just likes the taste” of well done steak, then you can join the Nescafé crowd and also please unfriend me on Facebook. I do not want to know you either.
You do not have to cook meat at all. Ethiopians slice it straight off the carcass. The Masai drink blood from wounds in live cattle. In Japan, if you go to an Izakaya, you might find on the menu raw chicken (torizashi), raw beef (gyuzashi), raw horse meat (basashi) or raw whale meat (kugirazashi).
Carpaccio, invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1950, and named after the artist Vittore Carpaccio because the colours of the dish are reminiscent of his paintings, is raw, sliced beef, slightly pounded, and traditionally served with a handful of arugula, a toss of olive oil, and some shaved parmesan. If you want to try this classic Italian dish, you can visit Cairo’s rapidly expanding chain of Carpaccio restaurants. The reviewer from Cairo 360 gave it only 1 ½ stars but, typically, he did not try the carpaccio.
It is said that the fierce Mongol warriors used to place slices of raw meat between their horse and saddle in order to tenderise it into one of their favourite delicacies. The horse sweat part is a bit off-putting to me, but the idea has come down to us today in the form of steak tartare; coarsely ground beef mixed with salt, pepper and herbs, shaped into a dome with an indentation, into which is placed a raw egg. My favourite place for this dish is Employees Only in the West Village in New York City. Check it out if you ever go there. They also do succulent bone marrow poppers. Amazing.
I have not found steak tartare in Cairo, but you can come close at Taboula or Dar al Amar, both of which serve the Lebanese specialty kibbe nayeh. Some bulghur, cinnamon and allspice are mixed into the raw ground beef (or lamb or goat meat). I like it on aish shami with slices of green onion, garlic paste (tom) and a drizzle of olive oil.
It is true that the risk of contamination rises rapidly with ground beef, especially when it is served raw. I once picked up a nasty tapeworm from a starter of aasbeh nayeh (raw lamb liver) that took up residence in my intestines and grew to around a meter before I discovered him and ended our relationship.
Well, life has its little risks, doesn’t it, but as Thoreau said: “If you live without living then you are already dead, so what is there to fear?” Then again, Thoreau did not eat meat, so what did he know?
If all else fails you can always squeeze some lemon on your liver and cook it that way. As my Mom instructed me when I went off to college: “Eat safe. Always use a condiment.”
David Blanks is away this week, this column has previously been published in Caravan.