My mother grew up in a house in Sam Leong Road, just off Jalan Besar. On more occasions than she cares to remember, she had to pass near an abattoir, situated off the other side of Jalan Besar.
What she chanced to see when passing near the slaughter-house were cattle being driven there to be turned into meat for the table.
She recalls vividly seeing cows kneel down, trying to resist being driven through the gate of death. She said they mooed in fear. She fancied she even saw a tear or two roll down the animals’ eyes.
While the tears are probably a bit too fanciful, and the extra details which a rich memory recalls in tranquillity , I am confident that she was not mistaken in her other recollections.
The cows must have indeed knelt and mooed.
My mother thought they sensed their nearing end instinctively. The smell of blood and death of the daily killings enveloping the abattoir must have filled the animals’ nostrils, alerting them to what lay ahead for them too.
Or, perhaps, the animals would have knelt and mooed anyway, even if they were in a peaceful meadow under the canopy of a blue cloudless sky.
Be that as it may. The recurrent sight of those animals at the abbatoir gate filled my mother with a compassion that put her off beef, most of the time, for most of her life. She enjoys the occasional bowl of beef-ball kway teow but she never goes out of her way to eat beef.
Moreover, when she found faith in Kwan Yin, she also discovered another reason to avoid beef. Followers of the Goddess of Mercy mostly eschewed beef. Hence, I grew up seldom, and probably never, eating beef.
All that changed when I went to England in 1962 for my A levels and my university education. I lived with an English family for whom roast beef was a Sunday treat, while mince-beef and beef stew were regular fare for the other days of the week.
Initially, I hated the taste of beef. Probably because I was unused to it, rather than that I had any moral or religious objections against eating it.
But what was I to do? The regular Sunday roast came with Yorkshire pudding. It was the high point of the traditional English Sunday lunch. In the evening, the remainder of the joint was sliced thinly to make cold roast beef sandwiches to be eaten at supper or high tea.
In the summer, the Sunday cold roast was accompanied by a garden-fresh salad for a light evening meal. Any leftovers went to making more sandwiches to take to school for lunch on Monday.
Mince-beef was served with mashed potatoes for a mid-week meal while on another week, it would be beef stew. Sometimes the mince came in the form of patties, or what is now popularly known as burgers. Very occasionally for a treat, sirloin steak would be served for dinner by my landlady. Rump steak was an even rarer treat, reserved for special occasions.
Gradually, with the help of lots of black pepper, English mustard and horse-raddish, I got used to beef, and even looked forward to eating it.
This was especially when I started dating and had the notion that asking for a pepper steak when taken out for a meal was the mark of high sophistication.
If I was mistaken in that belief, I, at least, didn’t commit the howler which one friend did.
Out on her first date, she had selected a steak item from the menu. When the waiter asked how she would like it, she replied: “Large”, much to the waiter and her date’s amusement.
Such faux pas is not reserved for gauche diners. One waiter at the Raffles Marina had me in stitches when he explained that grilled salmon steak was not beef, after I had asked for it to be done “medium rare”.
But I digress.
During certain periods in my life, the alien taste of beef had grown so on me that the meat became my meat of choice.
Interestingly, those periods co-incided with the times I was living on my own. Like the one year when I returned to work and live in London. And the years between 1980 and 1983 when I lived on my own in Singapore.
In London, I would buy a steak after work and grill it for dinner. Sometimes for week-ends, I would buy several pieces, for myself and guests.
Steak is easy to cook. It needs very little marinating and whether cooked under the grill or pan-fried, the meat is ready for the table in minutes.
And, strangely, a piece of steak in the 1970s was considered a “light” meal, easily digested. In fact, eating steak and a salad was thought to be the perfect way to diet for the health conscious. You cut out the carbohydrates and you maximise your protein intake.
Back home in Singapore, I grew so fond of beef on the wagon that the very thought of a juicy “king” cut was enough to make me do my best to secure an invitation to dine the Tanglin Club’s Churchill Room which in the 1980s was one of the few places certain to provide me with enough to assuage my cravings.
My fondness for eating the beef there made me to seek membership, and after almost 10 years’ waiting, I succeeded. But alas, in the intervening period, I lost my taste for beef , cooked in whatever way.
Of course, this is not the first time that I reverted to shuddering at the thought and smell of beef, although I believe that after this, I shall never rediscover my taste for that meat again.
The previous occasionI lost my taste for beef was in the early 1970s when I was working in London. As I had mentioned earlier, I found steak a convenient food, especially to cook, when I was living on my own. So was beef stew, which I turned into a deliciously rich dish by adding carrots, peas and onions.
However, I occasionally suffered irrational attacks of conscience. So it was the case one week-end when I had stocked up on enough beef for a veritable lazy Sunday feast for some friends I had invited over.
I had bought a couple pounds of the best cuts from the butcher across from the flat where I lived in Upper Richmond Road. I had also bought a pound of stewing steak.
It was almost summer. The days were quite chilly but the sunshine had a certain crispness in it to lift one’s spirits. I was at peace with the world and looking forward to providing some convivial repast for my guests.
Then my conscience struck, unexpectedly. As I was unwrapping the meat in the kitchen to trim off what fat still remained despite the butcher’s efforts , I suddenly saw beyond what I was handling.
It was not just steak wafting the delicious aromas after it had been freshly grilled or lightly fried in a pan or the tender melt-in-your-mouth meat swimming in a rich brown gravy of a well cooked stew.
It was soft, clammy cold, uncooked meat, still slightly bloody and decorated with thin white ribbons of fat or gristle. It had come from an animal that had till perhaps yesterday been alive and breathing in the air heralding the new summer.
I did not throw up. And I was sensible enough not to chuck several pounds of good edible meat down the rubbish chute. I knew there was a poor elderly West Indian lady living further up the road who would be delighted to be given what had just turned my stomach over.
Within half an hour I was at her door. I had made my way up a wobbly staircase covered by a threadbare carpet to her first-floor converted flat in an old Victorian house that had seen much better days.
I have forgotten her name but the pleasure on her face to be presented with my unexpected gift is still etched in my memory.
She was a proud woman.She wanted to pay for the beef. I would not have it. She was doing me a favour, I argued. I had bought all that meat and my friends had just called to say they would not be able to visit after all.
Why not keep it for next week, she countered. No, I said, I was going to my cousins. Only if you are very sure, she said. I was, I was. I could not bring myself to tell her that if she refused, the beef was destined for the dustbin.
When my guests arrived the next day, they were surprised to find no meal prepared, in lieu of which I offered them the chance of eating in a rather pricey restaurant in Richmond called Oscar’s.
I went off beef for the second – and most recent time – only after I returned to work in the newspapers in Singapore. It was gradual and undramatic.
One day, after having ordered my usual medium-rare king-cut in a restaurant, I found I had no appetite for the half-cooked meat. It was the same, when I went for the smaller queen-cut on another occasion.
Ditto for other forms of beef, whether beef ball noodles or beef rendang, once favourites after my taste buds learned to grow to love beef.
How do I explain the return of my aversion? Perhaps it is a result, however indirect, of my relearning the religious beliefs of my parents, especially those of my mother, who has found in the Goddess of Mercy or Kwan Yin a particularly efficacious refuge throughout her life. I have found similar comfort.
I do not regret losing my taste for beef although I am practical and realistic enough to accept that my taste may yet change again or circumstances may arise when I will be forced to eat the meat.
Thus I will not say that I have forsworn beef. Only that for more years than I can now remember I have not sought it out. It is not at all a sacrifice. Not eating beef may be more noble if it were. Nor do I do it out of religious reasons like some who abstain.
This article is not intended to convert those who love beeft. It is merely to share my experience with beef which, like most other experiences of life, is unique to the person who has gone through it.