Don't have a cow, man

With Thais eating less beef, beef-based dishes have been getting makeovers

Canton beef noodles.

Today, people aren't eating as much beef as they used to. There are many reasons for this. Some feel cows are noble creatures that help and live with farmers, and it would be a pity to eat them. Some feel that beef is too expensive, up to twice the price of pork or three times the price of chicken. It's tougher to chew and digest. If you worship Ganesh or Guan Yin, it's a sin to eat beef.

In Thailand, with many people eschewing beef, dishes have been adapted to include pork, chicken or fish instead. You may wonder whether these variations taste as good as the beef original. Well, if you don't eat beef, you'll never know. So why worry about it?

Traditionally, Thais consumed two kinds of meat from big animals: cow and buffalo. In the past, people in certain areas ate beef, but not buffalo. In others, buffalo, but not beef.

Beef vendor selling dried beef. Suthon Sukphisit

Farmers in the Central region didn't eat buffalo because they worked the paddy fields. Here, the buffaloes were treated extremely well. Farmers bathed them in rivers or canals and set up bonfires to drive away mosquitoes. If a buffalo died of natural causes, the owner would save its horns and hang them in their home as a keepsake. These horns could also be used to hang clothes and hats. The meat was given to neighbours or anyone who wanted it.

By contrast, people in the North used cows in agriculture. People there ate buffalo rather then beef. Some Northerners also had a belief that eating beef makes your head hurt.

Bangkokians tended to eat beef and didn't like buffalo meat due to its unappealing smell and darker colour.

Kanom jeen hailam used to be made only with beef. Suthon Sukphisit

Nowadays, there aren't enough buf falo left to be used as food. They have been disappearing from the Central region for a long time as farmers have started using more modern machinery. The number of cows, on the other hand, is increasing, as they're now systematically and commercially raised for consumption.

Beef dishes have traditionally been quite common in Bangkok. There's salted beef of various kinds. There's also nuea sawan (heavenly beef), which is marinated in fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and coriander seed. This isn't salty but has a pleasant aroma due to the coriander.

Salted beef is used in different dishes. It can be shredded into long strands, deep fried and mixed with sugar for sweet and savoury blend. This is often eaten with sticky rice, khao man (rice cooked in coconut milk) and som tam as part of central cuisine. It's also served as part of the khao chae set during Songkran.

Canton beef noodles.

Salted beef can be sliced into thin strips and boiled in coconut milk with chopped shallots and sugar. However, this is much less common than it used to be. Dishes such as beef green curry, which were popular in the past, are not widely available today. They are more commonly found in Muslim restaurants, often served with roti.

There are plenty of examples of other dishes which have similarly gone out of fashion. These are dishes such as beef noodles, with stir-fried beef, curry powder and onion on top. Yum neau yang -- or grilled beef in spicy salad -- made with thinly-sliced beef, grilled to medium, tossed into a spicy salad with cucumber, shallots, celery, lime, chilli and fish sauce.

Many of these traditionally beef-based dishes have been adapted, typically replacing the beef with pork. A type of Hailam noodle, kanom jeen hailam, which traditionally was made only with beef, is now also served with pork. Noodles with boiled beef and beef balls have been adapted to include pork instead. At shops that serve beef noodles, they'll usually now serve pork too, preparing separate broths for the pork and the beef.

With people consuming less beef, it's inevitable that food would be adapted to cater to people's tastes. Like all things, food changes to fit the needs of society.

Larb nuea.


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