There are always reasons for choosing the specific meat to be used in making a given Thai dish, and generally they have remained the same over the centuries. Khanom jeen nam ya (fermented rice noodles with a spicy pureed fish-based sauce) must be made with fresh fish _ dried fish, dried shrimp or pork won't do. Tom jeud bai tamlueng (a bland soup that includes the shoots of a morning glory-like vine) has to be made with minced pork, not minced fish or chicken, and kaeng som made with any kind of vegetable calls for fish and nothing else as the protein. Pork and chicken are out.
However, many dishes today that were once made with beef are being made with chicken or pork instead, as there is a growing trend to avoid beef in recent years.
There are a number of reasons why. The most important one is that people see the cow as a big animal that knows it will be killed as it is led to the abattoir. They feel sorry for cattle and feel it is best not to eat them.
Refusing to eat beef makes people feel more comfortable, and also is in line with the Buddhist idea of making merit by avoiding killing animals. But the trade-off is that none of the meats substituted for beef in these recipes are nearly as delicious.
Kaeng khio wan nuea (spicy coconut cream-based curry made in this case with beef) is a prime example. Certain seasonings such as cumin, basil leaves, ground galangal and coriander seeds are added to reduce the smell of the beef and also to increase the fragrance of the curry sauce. The beef used to make it should have some fat attached, too. When it has been simmered until very tender is acquires a stronger flavour. Kaeng khio wan nuea was the original version of this most popular of Thai curries, and existed before the pork, chicken or fish ball versions came onto the scene.
Phanaeng nuea (a thick, rich, coconut cream-based curry-like dish), which is cooked until the beef is tender enough to be cut with a fork, is likewise more flavourful than the pork version, and the familiar pad prik bai kraprao (hot stir-fry with chilli and basil) was originally made only with minced beef. There were no chicken or pork variants of the recipe. These days, if a cook doesn't mince some chicken or pork to a fine consistency when preparing pad prik bai kraprao, people think the kitchen staff is lazy or doesn't know how to make the dish.
BEEFY GOODNESS: Cantonese ‘kui tio rad na nuea’.
Other Thai dishes that call for beef and nothing else are nuea khem tom kap krathi sai hawm daeng (dried and salted beef simmered with shallots in coconut cream); nuea khem thawt cheek foy (salted dried beef that has been torn into fine strands), eaten with khao chae (rice in chilled, perfumed water, eaten with condiments) or the Central Thai version of som tam; and the deep-fried salted beef eaten with khao tom.
There are also Chinese dishes that should properly be made with beef. Kio tio nuea sap (rice noodles topped with minced beef in sauce) is one of them, but the beef version can hardly be found these days. Pork is always used instead. Other examples include Cantonese-style sen yai rad na nuea (wide rice noodles topped with beef in gravy), khanom jeen Hailam, a Hainanese-style wheat noodle dish that was formerly made only with beef. Now a pork version is sold, although its taste can't compare with that of the original beef recipe.
In the not so distant past beef was eaten in Thailand only in the cities. Country people saw cattle and buffalo as friends who helped them with their work. Without them there could be no harvest.
But going further back into the past, meat from cattle and buffalo was an essential part of food provisions in travelling, hunting and making war.
When Thai armies moved during wartime they went by river, because this was by far the best way to move the troops and supplies. The fish the waterways provided were not sufficient for all of them, though, so if they didn't bring their own animals along with them, they bought beef from local people. Only bulls were eaten, however.
This same restriction applied when men went hunting in the forest, and was accepted as a rule by everyone who entered or lived in forests. No female animals were to be hunted.
Even if hunters only encountered females, they never killed them. Sparing females helped ensure that the numbers of animals in the forest would increase. If a hunter did kill a female animal, his family would be very upset.
When minority communities moved to a new location or left their original territory as refugees, they took both male and female cattle or buffalo along with them. They used them to transport the things they were taking along, and once they settled in a new place they could use the animals to breed new stock.
They might also kill a male before setting off, then dry and salt the meat to take along as food.
The Thai Lue tribe, who migrated into Thailand's North from southern China, had a tradition of honouring ancestors by slaughtering pigs and buffalo as sacrificial offerings. Once again, however, only males were killed.
Thais of earlier eras believed the animals that provided beef could be killed when food was needed, but only bulls. During the time when people in the cities were developing a taste for beef.
They would not eat buffalo, only cattle, because buffalo worked together with farmers in the fields, and were gentle and helpful.
Today beef is still a standard ingredients used in the preparation of Thai food, though its useage is more limited. Its flavour is different from that of other meats, and its special qualities provide a good reason for its place in the country's cuisine. People who prefer not to eat it have valid reasons of their own for keeping clear. It's a personal decision, and either option offers a choice of Thai dishes rich enough to allow a lifetime of exploring and discovering.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit