The truth behind beef bacon and the Middle East
It didn’t look right. It didn’t look like a traditional cut. It wasn’t a traditional cut. It was a mound of plastic-firm slivers of cow flesh, shrivelled and mottled with foamy fat like it had been dipped in spittle.
It was the dark, almost purple, red of a fat man’s painful sunburn, streaked with white fat, cracked bubbles protruding from the wrinkled, leathery surface like burst blisters.
I pride myself on my willingness to try any food once, and the fact I usually like what I try. I have picked the husks of salted and spiced ants from between my teeth, chewed chicken’s severed feet and nibbled their skewered hearts, fished forkfuls of unidentifiable offal from murky stews, plucked fish eyes from a bowl like salted peanuts just to be polite, devoured plates of fried lamb’s brain and frog’s legs, greedily pulled rubbery snails slick with garlic butter from their shells (who hasn’t?).
No testicles, I’m ashamed to admit; not yet, give me time. But I have eaten alligator, catfish, camel, kangaroo, laverbread and limpets. Blood pudding? Yes, please. I have eaten ears. That’s right, ears. In the name of journalism, I once ate “The World’s Spiciest Burger”. It had me writhing around on the living room rug in agony, clutching my burning guts and demanding, “Milk, more milk”. But it was worth it I think).
I have seen whole beasts roasted on spits to sate my hunger. When I was a toddler I ate a slug from the garden. But I couldn’t bring myself to taste this “bacon”. This non-food. It was alien, a hybrid that retained none of the positive attributes of its constituent parts i.e. beef and non-halal bacon. I have since had the misfortune to eat it, on a burger from a popular fast-food restaurant. It was greasy, rubbery and tasteless. I love burgers. It’s not easy to ruin the experience of eating one. The beef bacon did it.
In my, admittedly limited, experience, beef bacon is not good. Nevertheless, although the UAE supermarket chain Spinneys says its sales of beef bacon are flat, you would be hard pressed to find a breakfast buffet or a café or a fast-food restaurant menu in the Middle East that doesn’t feature it. Why?
“Beef bacon is amazing if properly cooked using the right techniques,” says John Buenaventura, Culinary Director and CEO of Cuisinero Uno. Buenaventura admits beef bacon is generally perceived to be dry and tough but disagrees with the idea that beef bacon is not good bacon.
“The typical idea of beef bacon not being delicious is because of its low fat content compared to traditional bacon,” he says. “However, if you use the fatty parts of [the] beef it will prove to be just as delicious.”
Cuisinero Uno, in the Steigenberger Hotel Business Bay in Dubai, serves dishes inspired by Mediterranean and South American cuisine, and beef bacon can be found in several dishes.
“We use beef bacon for the extra kick and amazing flavour,” says Buenaventura. “We live in a region where the word ‘bacon’ is no longer associated with just one meat, which means the possibilities are endless.”
Kibsons is a leading importer and distributor of fruit, vegetables and meat, including beef bacon, into the UAE. It imports its beef bacon from Chef’s Choice in the US; made from beef brisket or plate and seasoned with spices, it is 100 per cent halal.
Sandile Ashley, Production Manager for Kibsons, believes the main reason for beef bacon’s popularity in the Middle East — and other places with large Muslim populations, such as Asia and North Africa — is its use as a substitute for traditional bacon and the rapid growth of the fast food chains that have promoted it.
Ashley, originally from South Africa, first encountered beef bacon when he moved to the Middle East more than ten years ago and he still enjoys a beef bacon sandwich. “Beef bacon tastes very similar to its non-halal counterpart when perfectly seasoned and smoked to perfection,” he says, adding that it can also be eaten with eggs, in salads or on pizzas.
Scott Price, Chef-Patron of Folly by Nick and Scott and The Lion, both in Dubai, is not convinced. “I’d rather not eat it, to be honest,” he says. Price’s first brush with beef bacon was when he took over as Executive Chef for Hilton Dubai Creek in Dubai in 2010. It was used in the hotel’s breakfast dishes. “When you say beef bacon, I think processed, homogenised, chewy and full of preservatives,” he says.
Having lived in the Middle East for almost a decade, Price understands the importance of respecting the culture of the region and is happy to use alternatives. He just doesn’t think beef bacon is the way to go.
Before opening Folly by Nick and Scott — one of Esquire Middle East’s Best Restaurants in the Gulf 2018 — Price and his long-time culinary partner Nick Alvis worked with Spinneys to create its casual-dining chain Taste Kitchen, developing their own veal bacon, which is now used in Spinneys’ deli products and sandwich range.
“When we looked at the beef bacon on the market, a lot of it seemed to be made from processed or possibly reconstituted, beef trim, with a low-fat content, which is why it’s usually dry and chewy. Very different to a brined and smoked veal brisket that is sliced and cooked to order.”
Riccardo Giraudi, owner of the global Beefbar franchise, who has spent a lot of time in the Middle East over the last two years visiting the relatively new Beefbar Dubai, is also a stickler for quality. But, unlike Price, Giraudi was intrigued when he first discovered beef bacon on a breakfast buffet in Dubai, and Beefbar Dubai does serve it.
Butchered and cured in-house in the Beefbar Butcher Shop using certified Japanese Kobe or Wagyu beef, and referred to as “beef jamòn”, it is used in the restaurant’s carbonara, which is one of the most popular dishes on the menu.
“It is 10/10, for sure, but marbling is key, you need [to use] high-quality beef,” says Giraudi, adding he believes beef charcuterie is the future and he is, therefore, investing in factories and production techniques in Europe.
For Giraudi, beef bacon’s bad reputation is down to poor marketing. “When you name a product ‘bacon’, people automatically associate it with the traditional non-halal product,” he says. “This is why we try to do it differently. To only sell ‘beef bacon’ is too generic, you need to be more specific when you address this product and offer it to your customers. With a bit of education and quality [ingredients], the product will have an amazing future.”
Howard Bender, Chef and CEO of Schmacon Products, is determined to build that future. Bender studied economics and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before changing tack and enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He worked in the kitchen in the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, then returned to New York to work for food marketing and distribution company Sysco Corporation, where he helped large companies to outsource development of their private label products for more than a decade.
In 2015, over breakfast, he bet a friend he could develop a beef bacon product that was superior to the “awful” turkey bacon he had chosen as an alternative to the traditional stuff on doctor’s orders. Schmacon was born.
When his product was still in development, Bender set up blind taste tastings of 25 beef bacon products from around the world. “It was all very different from what we were doing,” he says. “Every time we did a tasting, 95 per cent of people preferred our product — and it was still in development.”
Most of Schmacon’s competitors were trying to produce their beef bacon using processes similar to those used in the production of non-halal bacon. They were using cheap cuts usually used for ground beef, such as the navel, hanging it, which made it tough, and injecting it with salt water (a process known as “plumping”) and curing it with nitrates and nitrites. The result, when cooked, was a strip of oddly coloured meat inundated with sodium.
Bender’s product is produced using Certified Angus Beef (a partner) and is marinated but not cured. It is 100 per cent halal. His process is patented. “We’ve reinvented the wheel to some extent,” he says. “If you’re familiar with traditional bacon, how it crisps and curls when it cooks, Schmacon does those things, but of course we go further.”
Bender believes he has created a superior product but says he is grateful to his competitors for introducing beef bacon to the Middle East, creating a market and ensuring the product is a staple of hotel and restaurant kitchens across the region.
Schmacon launched in the Middle East in 2016 — it is currently available in Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE — and, having recently overseen the construction of a new EV (Export Verification) - certified 8,361sqm manufacturing facility just outside of Chicago, intends to institute a big push this autumn, launching in supermarkets across the region and entering the Saudi Arabian market.
Bender, who regularly visits the Middle East and singles out Dubai’s “amazing food scene” in particular, wants to create the same “cult-like addiction” to beef bacon that people outside the Middle East have to traditional bacon.
“The beef bacon industry is improving,” he says. “Even though we don’t have great exposure yet, I’d like to think what we’re doing is putting some pressure on the industry, forcing the other manufacturers to up their game, to produce a better product. To me, that’s nothing but fantastic for the industry. The Middle East is a great market [for beef bacon]. but it has not received the best product it can receive, until now.”
Bender’s shipment of Schmacon arrived at my house in a large polystyrene box last week. It has been sitting in the fridge since then, but having received a call from Esquire’s editor reminding me that deadline day is here, I skip breakfast and wait until I am so hungry I am dizzy and will derive joy from eating even tinned tuna (the only “food” I can’t abide). I slowly pull the box from the fridge and place it carefully on the worktop like it contains a severed head. I pick a large sharp blade, cut through the packaging tape, remove the lid, reach inside and grab hold of a fat, heavy wodge of vacuum-packed meat. Uncured Beef Slices, it reads.
Even after Bender’s impassioned sales pitch, I am not expecting much. If the experience doesn’t ruin my day as well as my lunch, I will be happy. I cut open the packet and pull out a slice. It feels like a traditional cut. The thin streak of meat, reddish-pink and marbled with fat like a fine cut of beef and emanating a sweet smokiness, is not unappealing. It is attractive. I lay it carefully in a cold, dry, non-stick sauté pan. I pull out four more pieces. They are fragile, like streaky non-halal bacon can be, but so far that’s my only criticism.
I turn the gas up to a medium heat and wait. The packet advises five minutes on each side, but within seconds the Schmacon starts to crackle and spit like the real thing, quickly filling the pan with rendered fat. It crisps and contracts. It has turned a deep purple. That sweet smokiness fills the kitchen. I flip the Schmacon, listen to the sizzle for a few more seconds, turn off the gas, decant the generous pile of crispy meat onto a slice of buttered white bread, pour on a dollop of BBQ sauce, place another slice of bread on top, lift the sandwich up in two hands and take a large bite. I have forgotten I am not supposed to like it. It is slightly chewier than the traditional streaky stuff, and it has a more intense, smokier flavour. It is not the bacon I know, but it is undeniably good.
Perhaps Giraudi is right, and beef charcuterie is the future. But I’d encourage they stick with calling it beef jamòn.