Dish may owe origin to world's first galloping gourmets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


Steak tartare consists of raw, chopped steak served with a raw egg yolk and capers, although two authoritative guides disagree. The self-professed 'world's greatest culinary encyclopedia', Larousse Gastronomique, says 'purists' believe it should be horse meat, not beef; and in Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier, the so-called father of modern cookery, 'Beefsteak ? la Tartare' is said to be made without egg yolk. (The recipe with egg is called 'Beefsteak ? l'Americaine'.) Fans still debate if Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces are legitimate additions. Despite the lively debate among the French, some say the dish isn't French at all.

Tartare refers to the Tartar ethnic group that originates from what was once the Mongol empire, which spanned from modern-day Eastern Europe to Central and North Asia. They were nomadic tribes said to have formed most of Genghis Khan's army in the 13th century, when it conquered much of the then-known world.

As Khan's army consisted mainly of men on horseback, legend has it that his soldiers would put meat under their saddles - some say it was to tenderise it; others suggest the meat was used as cushioning for their long rides. Either way, Khan's army was known to be fast moving. Be it on the battlefield or travelling, they had little time to catch a bite. It is said the men would take the meat out from under their saddles and eat it raw for convenience.

Khan's army was also known to move with a huge number of staff who would look after the soldiers' needs, such as setting up tents and cooking. As such, it has also been suggested that after tenderisation under the warriors' saddles, the cooks would retrieve the meat and mince it up for easier eating.

So was it a raw steak or minced meat? And how did Europeans get a taste for it? There are some who say the use of capers means the dish is of German origin, especially considering that a cooked version of beef tartare is basically a hamburger patty, which originates from Hamburg - but that's a whole other mare's nest.