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Rare? That's what it is
India has become the world's largest exporter of beef so why is it so difficult to find good steak in restaurants? TOI-Crest gets to the meat of the matter.
Last year was quite significant for the Pink Revolution started by the central government. In 2012, with exports of 1. 5 million tons, India edged out Australia and New Zealand to become the world's largest exporter of beef. According to an October 2012 forecast by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), exports are expected to increase by 29 per cent in 2013 to 2. 16 million tons. Despite accounting for nearly a quarter of the global beef trade, India is the only country amongst the top global producers where it is nearly impossible to find a good steak in any restaurant in any part of the country.
While there's no doubt that most of the better quality meat gets exported, it's unlikely that the beef exported is of a superior quality in the first place. An earlier USDA report points out that, 'India's exports are exclusively deboned frozen buffalo meat (carabeef). . . according to the most recent Indian Livestock Census (2007), buffalo comprise approximately one-third of the bovine herd. Locally too, the beef available comes from buffalo since cow slaughter is prohibited in most of India with the exception of Kerala, Bengal and a few of the northeastern states. While Karnataka previously allowed the slaughter of bulls but not cows, the Karnataka Assembly passed the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation (Amendment) Bill in 2012. However, as it has not received the Governor's approval, it has not come into effect as yet.
That's probably why fine-dining restaurants in Bengaluru are fortunate enough to have a regular supply of good quality beef. It's also why your best bet for a great steak is Bengaluru. This, however, doesn't mean that you're always going to find one - just that the likelihood is greater in Bengaluru than any other part of the country. Executive chef and partner of Olive Bangalore, Manu Chandra, who also oversees the Delhi and Mumbai branches confirms this, "The quality of local beef is far better in Bengaluru. Mumbai is bad, Delhi is by far the worst".
Though the laws vary by state, most of the cattle brought for slaughter tend to be old animals that are no longer fit for agricultural use as draught animals or are unable to produce milk. This is quite unlike other global beef-producing countries where cattle are bred specifically for the table. In Australia, for instance, which until recently was one of the most important exporters of beef to India, the most popular breeds are the Scottish Angus, British Hereford and the French Charolais all of which historically have been raised for their meat. Australia is also a significant producer of premium beef from Japanese Wagyu and Italian Chianina herds.
India has taken over the global market not because of quality but because our beef is more competitively priced. Most of our exports go to the price sensitive Middle East, North Africa and South-east Asia, with negligible quantities being exported to the premium markets of Europe, the US, Japan or Korea. According to statistics from the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, the umbrella body that both promotes and monitors the exports of food and agricultural products from India, the largest importers of beef from India are Vietnam, Malaysia and Egypt. These three countries accounted for 4, 42, 673 metric tons, close to a third of total beef exports in 2012.
The difference in the character of the herds and their lives before slaughter directly influences the quality of the beef. For one, different kinds of steaks can be produced by an animal bred for the table. Chuck and blade steaks from the shoulder, rib-eye from the area around the rib cage, T-bone, porterhouse, tenderloin from the mid-section, sirloin from the lower-back and the round steak from the rump. Additionally, marbling, the distribution of fat between the muscles, occurs in animals that have led a sedentary life, been fed well and are genetically pre-disposed to the development of marbling. Good marbling is vital in steaks because when the meat is seared it dries out and it's the moisture from the fat that ensures the steak remains juicy and moist.
Indian buffalos, being primarily draught and dairy animals have far less fat and more muscular. While Chandra finds that he can get cuts like tenderloin and strip steaks in Bengaluru, Executive Chef Alex Sanchez of The Table, Mumbai, has been able to procure only decent tenderloin in Mumbai. Sanchez feels that the tenderloin "is the only edible part of the buffalo. I've bought a whole side of beef and butchered it myself;whether it's the front quarter where the rib-eye is, the back quarter where the New York is or the sirloin - all of it is completely inedible. When you cook it rare, it's totally chewy. "
Sanchez points out an additional problem with the beef supplied to restaurants and hotels. Indian butchers have never been trained on the different cuts of steak, he says. "There isn't any education for the butchers about where to cut. They don't know where to get that perfect rib-eye. I've seen rib-eyes here;they look like something the cat dragged in. Even if the meat was good enough it just wouldn't look like a steak. "
It's a pity that we're unable to offer good quality steak in India considering that Indians are slowly moving away from the overcooked well-done steak to meat cooked to a proper doneness. "At Olive, " says Chandra, "we suggest that guests order their steaks medium or medium-rare, and 90 per cent of the time that's how it's ordered. "
It's unlikely though that anyone will be able to order a nice rare steak anytime soon.
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