Many in Kerala have been trying for a few years to transport this truly southern spirit from the US to Kerala’s dining tables.
Many in Kerala have been trying for a few years to transport this truly southern spirit from the US to Kerala’s dining tables.Photo | Unsplash

Smoke tales straight outta Texas

Texas-style smoked briskets are slowly becoming all the rage in Kerala. TNIE explores the evolution of the dish and Malayali’s growing appreciation for it

KOCHI: Juicy, tender, fatty, melt-in-the-mouth, beef is something like heaven of mouthfuls. Slow-cooked, smokey briskets are becoming the next big thing in Kerala’s ever-evolving culinary landscape. And preparing this truly gastronomic adventure is not an easy peasy affair, and hence, won’t take over all the restaurants like wildfire. After all, it takes at least 14 hours to get that perfect brisket onto your plate.

However, many in Kerala have been trying for a few years to transport this truly southern spirit from the US to Kerala’s dining tables. One such figure is pitmaster Steve Sebastian from Kochi. For the 25-year-old, the attraction lies in mastering the art of smoked cooking. And at the epitome of this art form is the Texas-style beef briskets. Before diving deep into pitmasters like Steve and their culinary journey for that best cut of meat, let’s look at the basics of brisket.

What is a Brisket?

A brisket, actually, is a cut of meat. It comes from the lower chest of a cow, to be exact, the area between and slightly above the front legs. It is one of the nine prime cuts though the definition of the cut differs from nation to nation. Since cows do not have a collarbone, it’s this area that supports 60 per cent of the cow’s weight. That means tough, dense muscles.

But when cooked at low heat for hours, lo and behold, it transforms into a super tender marvel. That’s because the meat contains plenty of connective tissue which softens once broken down.

One interesting fact about brisket, now synonymous with southern American states, is that it was the Jewish communities which began to favour this cut. Reason: this part of the breast comes from the front side of the cow, making it kosher.

From Passover to Texas

The Jewish community has been consuming briskets during holidays like Hanukkah and Passover festivities since the late 1700s. In the 19th century, many Jewish refugees from Germany and the Czech Republic fled to the United States and they brought their culture and recipes with them, including brisket. In the early 1900s, Texas Jewish deli menus began to feature smoked briskets. And the brisket became popular with the rise of Texas Barbeque which became famous worldwide. Many cultures and countries around the world have different styles of cooking brisket. However, none has achieved the cult following of the American smoked version.

Smoke Culture by Steve
Smoke Culture by Steve

Cook it low and slow

To cook a traditional Texas brisket, a barbeque pit is made of bricks. Wood — preferably mango, guava, tamarind, or cherry oak wood to enhance the flavour — is used for the firing up the pit.

The flavour changes as the wood changes and the consistency of the meat changes according to where the meat is placed on the pit. With the growth of technology, many restaurants currently use combi ovens that bind the upper crust of the brisket as well as hold the moisture of the meat inside.

“The perfect way to provide the brisket to consumers is by smoking the best quality meat. Brining and smoking infuse very specific flavours into the meat and may take around 16 to 20 hours to prepare it,” explains Steve who runs Smoke Culture by Steve in Kochi.

According to the pitmaster, unless the meat is slow-cooked, briskets will turn stiff and chewy. Even slicing plays an important role in the process and if done wrong, the meat can lose its texture. The smoky, tender, and juicy briskets are often paired with barbeque sauce as is the Texas style.

The brisket is made up of two different muscles, Steve adds. The flat, or first cut and the point or second cut, which is also called a deckle. The fattier point cut is preferred for pulled beef, beef sandwiches, and smoked barbecued brisket.

The connoisseur and content creator, Alex Jo, popular through his Instagram handle @eatlikejo now has detailed answers for never-ending queries on brisket spots in Kerala.

“This is a new culture. Three years ago, while grilled meat was limited to just Alfahams and tikkas, the rise of pitmasters has brought out a new scenario. The authentic Texas-style or American-style Barbeques are now available in Kerala. I consider it as a pure appreciation of meat,” says Alex.

Though being a state with higher meat consumption and an ex-British colony, Kerala took a long time to taste the brisket. The reasons are quite simple. The major factor is the irresistible urge for spices for the Indian taste buds. “The obsession over masala stopped us from relishing the innate essence of meat,” says Alex.

Brisket preparation at Beyond Burger Inc, Kochi
Brisket preparation at Beyond Burger Inc, Kochi

But now the scenario is slowly changing as spices from our state are used in the preparation. Hand-ground pepper can elevate any flavor of the dish and pitmasters use high-quality spices for this.

The initial prep involves seasoning the cut. Usually, it is salt and ground pepper.

“As brisket is the underlying part of beef, the first cut is used to make the gravy to braise the brisket. And it is the fat covering on one side that helps create that delectable softness,” says Johns Mathew, chef at Bakers Arch Garden Café in Thiruvananthapuram. “A solid customer base is currently there for brisket,” he adds.

Anjana Gopakumar, food vlogger and admin of the Instagram handle @eat_at_tvm, says briskets available in Kerala are Indianised and suitable for our taste buds.

“When I was living in Canada, I had tried briskets from restaurants there. That’s when I realised, pitmasters in Kerala are doing a good job of providing the most tender meat with appropriate seasoning. They are not just following the Western style, but experimenting and making them suitable for our palate,” she says.

Good quality meat, wood, and seasoning will have a huge impact on the preparation of the meat. The process is time-consuming, labour-intensive and requires professional pitmasters to even slice the meat and cook it in the right heat.

The brisket is not pocket-friendly either. The entire process is expensive and it is not something we can add to our daily diet. Packed with protein and saturated fats, the dish is quite fancy. “Brisket making is rather an art. Consider it as an experience,” adds Alex.

In Thiruvananthapuram, Bakers Arch Cafe now serves smoked brisket as brunch option. Hyatt Regency, Thiruvananthapuram is also introducing a smoked brisket sandwich in mid-May.

“With the popularity of brisket rising thanks to social media, people are enquiring about the availability of the cut and want to experience the taste. Beef is not new to the market. So we are sure the crowd will accept briskets, too,” says Senthil Kumar, executive chef at Hyatt Regency, Thiruvananthapuram.

This new meat culture, which involves barbecues and smoke, is slowly revolutionising the food industry, but the availability of cuts like brisket is still limited, say the pitmasters. “These premium pieces are still prepared only on specific days. This needs to develop slowly” says Karthik M M aka Trivian foodie. And chef John says he is trying to break this barrier of restricted supply to reach the masses. “As long as people are ready to explore, good briskets will be here,” he smiles.

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