I couldn't think of her family without also recalling the smell of sizzling meat and burning garlic, the sound of shot glasses clinking and the women's noisy conversation emanating from the kitchen. All of them - especially my father-in-law - enjoyed yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar. I'd seen my mother-in-law gut a live fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken into pieces with a butcher's cleaver.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
Though I'm not sure I remember the first time I ate beef tartar, there is one plate of it that holds a special place in my memory. It was 2012, and I'd just finished working on the Team Welcome Ceremonies at the Olympic Games. I was exhausted; shattered after spending 16-hour days spent nursing teenager performers through heatstroke, sprained shoulders and bruised egos. Quite aside from the stress of the show itself, we were also in a brand new venue, surrounded by (useless) G4S security guards, and with toilet blocks yet to be completed. I was mere days away from starting a new job at the best theatre in the world, with no idea how I was going to prove myself worthy. My anxiety was as bad as it has ever been. In short, I was a complete emotional wreck.
The weekend after the Opening Ceremony, I got on the Eurostar and, some days later, sat in a restaurant in Brussels, with some of my favourite people in the world. I ordered a steak, cooked blue. Across the table, Anna ordered the steak tartar. The food was delicious. Perfect. As good a meal as we'd ever had; the beefiest of beef, if such a thing is possible. Anna and I both found ourselves in tears at the table, overwhelmed by the dishes in front of us. I can't fully explain it, and I do maintain that I was already pretty emotional, but it remains one of the most memorable meals of my life.
When I came across the description of the beef tartar in The Vegetarian, I was taken straight back to that dish in Brussels. I found the book overwhelming in a completely different way to the beef - it is evocative and slippery, and not at all what I expected. I disappeared into it one afternoon in the bath. I do acknowledge that beef tartar is, perhaps, an inappropriate choice of dish for a book so titled. But the passage above is one of my favourites; it conjures up a picture of a family as efficiently and effectively than any I've ever read. The titular vegetarian, though certainly central to the story, remains illusive throughout; we only come to know about her through the eyes of her husband, brother-in-law and sister, who all paint such varied pictures of her. If you haven't read it yet, it is a rich, lyrical translation - one well worth picking up.
Ps. If you're London based, or visiting in the next month, I'd love for you to come and join me for dinner. I have a couple of supperclubs coming up - inspired by the works of Elena Ferrante and Virginia Woolf. Check out my site for more details.
125g raw beef - I used an end piece of fillet (cheaper than the thicker top end), but talk to your butcher/supermarket counter about what might be best. You need something very lean and tender.
2tsp soy sauce
2tsp sesame oil
1 spring onion, very finely sliced
1tbsp sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Generous grinding black pepper
Half a pear - Korean/nashi is ideal, but do use any nice, firm pear you can find. A very soft, ripe pear isn't ideal here, as you'll struggle to slice it into matchsticks.
1 egg yolk
Two small bowls or cups
1. Store the beef in the coldest part of your fridge, or pop it in the freezer for an hour before you intend to eat. It will be easier to slice this way.
2. Peel the pear and slice it into fine matchsticks. Fill a mixing bowl with iced water and drop the sliced pear in. It will prevent the pear going brown, and also ensure it's nice and cool when you come to serving.
3. Put the soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, sesame seeds, spring onion, minced garlic and pepper together in one of the small bowls. Mix the ingredients together with the fork.
4. Slice the beef. Start by laying the piece of beef flat on the chopping board, and it slice into 3mm thick pieces, cutting parallel to the board. Slice lengthways, again into 3mm wide strips. Cut the strips in half or in thirds, until they are around 3cm long. If you prefer, do dice the beef into small pieces.
5. Mix the dressing through the beef, then push it into one of the small bowls, using it as a mould. Place in the freezer for five minutes to chill thoroughly. Meanwhile, drain the pear and assemble on a plate. Drop the chilled beef from the mould onto the top of the pear, and top with a raw egg yolk. Eat immediately.