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How the term became generic

13 Sep, 2015 by Vir Sanghvi

How the term became generic

Sometimes a dish becomes so popular that its name is applied to other dishes that have nothing to do with the original. For instance, Carpaccio should refer only to a dish of raw beef, sliced thinly, arranged on a plate and then dressed with a sauce. That is how it was meant to be when it was invented at Harry's Bar in Venice. But now anything that is sliced thinly and served raw is called Carpaccio, i.e. Aubergine Carpaccio or Scallop Carpaccio.

So it is with Steak Tartare. Though the dish may or may not have originated from the cuisine of the Tartare warriors (highly unlikely), the earliest records suggest it was called Steak Americaine by the French. They would roughly chop some beef, add seasonings (capers, for instance) and then serve the dish with a raw egg yolk. Over time, somebody had the idea of combining the condiments and separating them from the beef. So they served the chopped beef with Tartar sauce (which we now associate with fried fish) which had capers and many of the traditional condiments associated with Steak Americaine.

In Auguste Escoffier’s classic listing of French dishes, Steak Tartare is chopped raw beef with Tartar sauce on the side and that name has stuck. Over time however, people have gone back to the idea of mixing chopped, raw beef with various spicy ingredients (capers, shallots, mustard, Worcester sauce, lemon and even egg yolk), often at the table, in front of the guest, even though the dish is listed as Steak Tartare and Steak Americaine has dropped out of use as a name.

But raw beef is not to everyone’s taste, so the dish had limited international success till the Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa (founder of the eponymous restaurants) created a raw tuna dish and called it Tuna Tartare. In its original avatar, Nobu made the dish by chilling the parts of the tuna that were not good enough to put on the menu and then chopping them up in the manner of Steak Tartare.

The dish proved so popular that it became an American menu cliché in the nineties and Nobu started doing a more upmarket version using only the toro or fatty belly part of the fish (which is the most expensive part of tuna) and then topping it with caviar to make it seem more luxurious.

These days the term ‘Tartare' is applied to any dish that uses finely chopped or minced raw ingredients, i.e. Avocado Tartare or Salmon Tartare. Like Carpaccio, the term has become a generic, popular even with people who have never tasted the beef original.

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Written By

Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.

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