In his book The Anatomy of Disgust William Miller argued that when we are disgusted we are trying to impose limits in a chaotic universe and attempting to keep disorder at bay. However, each culture has its own set of the disgusting. In Britain we don’t eat snails, frogs or horses, but it’s but a short hop across the Channel to the land of Frogs where these things are considered a delicacy.
Historically, in Thailand, people have eaten a wide range of meats. Not horses (they aren’t common in Thailand), and some people don’t eat snails (in their mind they are associated with toilets), but frog is still quite popular, along with fish, prawns and other shellfish and wild birds. In the past chicken was a luxury – you wouldn’t want to kill an animal that provided you with a steady stream of eggs. So was pork – it took a long time to raise a pig, and then you had to put from your mind that in its lifetime a pig will have eaten a lot of rather revolting stuff (yes, including human poo).
Cows and buffalo held a particular place in the affections of the Thai farmer. They did a lot of the hard work on the farm, and were treated with great affection. A farmer wouldn’t usually eat his own beast, but would rather give the meat to neighbours, or sell it in the local market. A particularly belovėd animal would be buried and its skull mounted on the wall of the house.
City dwellers were somewhat less sentimental about the cow and the buffalo: beef was a delicious meat, to be enjoyed salted, dried, grilled, or eaten in a curry or soup.
Bangkok’s building boom of a few years ago triggered a massive influx of labour from Isaan (the high plateau in the north east of Thailand). Life as a peasant farmer was hard; working long hours on a dangerous building site in the capital seemed like an easy option. Soon there were food stalls – and later restaurants – all over Bangkok selling Isaan food: grilled chicken, barbecued pork, somtam (spicy green papaya salad) and sticky rice, as well as laap (spicy salad made from barely cooked minced meat with lime juice, coriander and mint). Thankfully such local delights as red ant eggs and part digested buffalo stomach contents dipped in blood were left on the plateau. However, in travelling to the capital the food mutated. It became less spicy and beef was increasingly used. Dishes such as nam tok neua (literally “waterfall beef”, a salad of grilled, sliced beef with herbs in a spicy, sour sauce containing ground roasted rice named after the drops of moisture that fall off the beef as it grills), seua ronghai (grilled beef, but literally “crying tiger”, named after the sound the dripping fat makes as it hits the barbecue coals) and neu tun (beef tendon soup). (Winnie the Pooh fans will be relieved to learn that seau ronghai was never actually made from Tiggers.)
More recently beef has started to disappear from the menu. Nam tok is now more usually made with pork and laap is more commonly seen made from chicken, duck or pork.
It’s not only Isaan food that has seen a cutback in the use of beef. Other Thai dishes have changed radically to eliminate beef: gaeng khiaw waan (green curry) was traditionally made with beef, but is now rarely seen made with anything other than chicken or fishballs; gaeng kii lek (curry with a distinctive local leaf) used to be made with beef, but now is usually found with pork; and panaeng neua (beef in a thick curry sauce) is now almost invariably made with chicken or pork. Curries, soups, yams, noodle dishes – all have changed.
With this decline in use, beef has become harder to find. Of the two big supermarket chains, Tesco-Lotus usually has a small selecion on its shelves, but Big C doesn’t stock it at all. And in the local markets, in smaller ones beef’s unobtainable, though larger markets might have a stall or two selling it.
Why the decline? In part, I suspect, it’s because of price; beef is much more expensive than pork or chicken. And in part it may be because of Mad Cow Disease. However, there’s also a significant feeling that large animals such as cows are more sentient than smaller ones, so consuming them is more “sinful”.
How long before the only place you can find beef in Thailand is under the Golden Arches?