On a trip to Hong Kong, Dom Knight fell in love with beef brisket. As he discovered, it isn’t just a star attraction in Southern Chinese food...
Dom Knight

29 Jun 2017 - 12:14 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2017 - 12:33 PM

Vegetarians, this article is not for you. Because this is a story all about the joy of meat. Specifically, beef – and even more particularly, brisket.

I'm almost as frequent a beef eater as any soldier patrolling the Tower of London, but I’ve never bothered too much about what kind of beef. This all changed when I recently fell in love with one of the world’s most popular cuts – brisket.

There are regional variations in how it’s defined, but brisket refers in broad terms to the breast or lower chest. If you're looking at one of those somewhat macabre diagrams of a cow broken down into the cuts, it's more or less at the bottom of the front end, below the neck.

And what it means in practice is beef that's perfect for slow cooking. When it's done right, it crumbles with the gentlest touch of the fork. It practically pulls itself.

I first became a serious devotee of brisket in Hong Kong at a place where it's the star of the menu – Sister Wah, a cheap and cheerful noodle shop in Tin Hau, a tiny neighbourhood near Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island.

It's one of those places where you perch on a tiny plastic stool at a white Laminex table under insanely bright fluoros. Nobody lingers for long, and if you're tempted, you'll soon get a sense from the owners that your welcome expired with your last slurp of noodle soup.

Most visitors seem to order the beef noodles, which are spaghetti-like flour noodles that are most popularly ordered piping hot in beef broth or in a spicy Dan Dan variety – I tried the latter with brisket, and it was sensational. And the menu has many other Hong Kong noodle specialities, like the ubiquitous fish balls and all kinds of tripe options that I was happy to pass over.

But the dish I most recommend for brisket fans is the curry beef brisket, which comes on rice at Sister Wah. It’s practically a stew, and lets you enjoy the flavour of the beef in a way you can’t in a noodle soup, where it ends up a little boiled.

It was a revelation to me. The curry sauce makes the rice taste delicious, and the beef melts in your mouth in the best possible way. It’s absolutely sensational – there’s a reason why this restaurant is in the Michelin guide.

I wouldn’t say Sister Wah’s beef brisket is so good that you should fly to Hong Kong specifically to try it – but if you’re in HK, it’s well worth a short trip on the MTR. (In HK, every train trip is short!) What’s more, the menu contains hardly anything that costs more than $20.

I haven’t managed to find Asian beef brisket this good in Australia, but if anyone’s got a lead, please let me know. A lot of places serve beef noodle soup, but it’s rare to find beef so impeccably flavoursome.

In Melbourne shortly afterwards, I found beef brisket as the star of a very different kind of menu – a Texas-style BBQ joint. In the wilds of Crown Casino, you’ll find San Antone by Bludso’s BBQ, a smokehouse that’s straight outta Texas via Compton in LA.

I was lucky enough to visit on a day when the charismatic American pitmaster Kevin Bludso was in town, and watched him carefully inspecting the smoker, which looked like the central barrel-shaped component of an old steam engine.

No mucking around with carbs for me – I ordered 200g of brisket and coleslaw on the side. The meat arrived sitting on wax paper, ready to go. There were two little cups of BBQ sauce, mild and spicy, and I couldn’t decide which I liked more.

And the beef! It was extremely juicy and soft, and had that same crumbly texture that I’d been looking for.

Sliced thinly, BBQ beef brisket from San Antone, Melbourne

The coleslaw was good too, but the second time I stopped by, I didn’t even bother with a side. Just meat, with BBQ sauce as the only side. Perfect.

Bludso reckons “slow and low” is the key to the flavour – meaning low temperatures and slow cooked, up to 14 hours at his restaurant, apparently. Fortunately Crown’s open 24 hours!

Korean barbecue also heavily features brisket, with a popular version known as chadol baeki. It’s served thinly sliced, cooks very quickly and tastes so good they generally don’t even worry about marinating it.

Brisket also appears in several other hearty regional dishes too, including Māori boil-ups and traditional Jewish braises and pot roasts (like this Jewish braised beef from Food Safari). 

Brisket contains a high proportion of muscular tissue, as it supports much of the cow’s weight. That’s apparently why it needs to be cooked slowly, or sliced thinly – it tenderises the muscle tissue, and in particular, liquefies the collagen. That relatively high fat content is also a reason for the incredible flavour.

So a great brisket dish takes time. But when it’s done properly, the results are some of the best beef you’ll ever eat. It doesn’t matter if you have to eat quickly, like at Sister Wah – the key thing is that the people in the kitchen have hours to spend on getting the meat just perfect.

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Images: Dom Knight

Try your own brisket
Texas beef brisket

The barbecue in Texas is all about the pure beef flavour with minimal extra seasonings. I have lightly brined my beef using pickle juice and mustard. The rub is essentially salt and pepper with a touch of sugar to help with the caramelisation of the beef. Like most meats in Texas, post oak is the wood of choice, followed by hickory if you cannot get oak.

Barbecue brisket with shiitake glaze and stir-fried mushrooms

This tender beef brisket is spiked with classic Asian flavours like lemongrass, soy sauce and chilli for an Asian-American version of pulled beef.