Salt beef, also known as salted beef or salt meat, was once a Christmas staple in Kolkata’s Christian homes. Often paired with plum cakes and wine, this cured meat made it to the Christmas menu of various Christian and especially Anglo-Indian homes in Kolkata. But with time, salted beef has slowly vanished from tables, perhaps because of the time, labour and patience it requires.
For those who still want a taste of the classic, without sweating over it, Calcutta Stories Café and Deli has salt meat on its Christmas-special menu.
(New) Market memories
The process of marination requires attention to detailPrithvish Chakravarti
Salt beef takes three to four days to prepare and must be done carefully. The preparation of salt beef usually begins with buying the correct cut of meat and curating the other ingredients.
As a child, I saw my grandmothers carefully studying the huge beef undercuts, weighing around 4-5kg, at the meat section of Hogg Market. Then, they would go in search of an earthen pot that would be used to prepare the meat. Finally, the other ingredients were procured.
The process of marination also required attention to detail. The meat needed to be attended to every day until it was finally ready to be boiled and then served in slices with bread and wine. It has also been a ritual in the family to exchange salt beef and Christmas cakes with our loved ones.
Prithvish Chakravarti, the owner of Calcutta Stories Café and Deli
It was during a chat with Prithvish Chakravarti, the owner of Calcutta Stories Café and Deli, last year, that I happened to mention salt beef and how this delicacy had all but vanished. As I recalled how eagerly I would help my father with the preparation, Chakravarti shared that his former chef, late Francis Thomas, would make it as a Christmas treat.
Prithvishda was keen to try his hand at making salt beef during Christmas and I shared our family recipe with him. Soon enough, he magically conjured up the much-loved dish and I had a chance to enjoy the best-ever salt beef last Christmas.
Asked what he thought was the most difficult part of the recipe, Prithvishda laughed and said, “The waiting!”
What makes his salt beef perfect is that he sticks to the recipe diligently. “I do not add any personal touch to this. I believe that you shouldn’t meddle with something that already tastes so good. But yes, I’ve experimented with various flavours, including citrusy ones like orange, sweet lime and gondhoraj (which is of course a sublime aromatic).”
Slices of the finished productPrithvish Chakravarti
The not-so-cold winter of Kolkata posed a challenge. “In Kolkata, the temperatures have gone up during winter, so it is very difficult at times to make salt beef at home as was done earlier when the weather was much cooler. You might land up with bad meat and a tummy upset. This year, too, it was pretty warm till recently. At Calcutta Stories Café and Deli, we do it in an environment chamber under strict temperature and humidity controls.”
The family recipe
- Beef undercut/tenderloin: 3-4kg
- Lemons: 25-30 pieces
- Salt: 50g
- Saltpetre (Potassium nitrate): 1 tablespoon
- Jaggery (cane sugar): 100g
- Earthen pot
- Take the beef chunk and remove all fat from it with the help of a sharp knife. Make sure all fat portions are removed, otherwise it may hinder the process and spoil the meat.
- Dab the meat dry with a clean cloth to remove all moisture and put the meat in the clay pot.
- Cut the lemon into halves and remove all seeds. Squeeze the juice out in a non-metallic bowl. Now add the salt and potassium nitrate to the juice and mix well.
- Pour the mixture in the clay pot. Ideally, the meat should be submerged in the liquid.
- With the help of a fork or skewers, poke the meat to ensure the liquid enters the meat.
- Cover the opening of the pot with a cloth and leave this for three days.
- In the three days, poke the meat at least thrice a day and pour the lime juice-salt-potassium nitrate mixture on it.
- On the fourth day, add jaggery to the mixture and keep aside.
- Transfer the marinated meat to a cooking pan with the liquid and simmer on a low flame. Pour the jaggery solution from top and keep simmering it till the liquid evaporates, leaving behind a layer of salt.
- Allow it to cool down and then take out the meat. Remove the salt residue gently and as much as possible.
- This can now be sliced and served with bread and wine.
- Make sure the meat does not come in contact with water during the process. Moisture can lead to moulding.
- Check the meat regularly. It will shrink in size and that is normal.
- Use a sharp knife to cut salt beef.
- Refrigerate to increase shelf life.
Happy cooking and feasting!