The origin of the dish leads right back to Attila the Hun and Europe’s dark ages…


…consists of raw fillet of beef. The meat is chopped in the kitchen with a knife. And, at restaurants where they have trained wait staff, the Steak Tartar is prepared at the table.

Steak tartar (a la tartare) is one of my favorites and can be found in a small number of fine restaurants where this delicatessy is served table side.
It consists of raw fillet of beef. The meat is chopped in the kitchen with a knife. And, at restaurants where they have trained wait staff, the Steak Tartar leaves the kitchen unprepared on a platter. Surrounded by the greens of beds of butter lettuce the meat takes up the middle of the plate. The fresh-red, fine-chopped fillet is topped with a whole raw egg yolk. Individual small cups filled with chopped onions, pickles and capers are sitting to be used on the greens next to the meat. Additional condiments are set up on a separate tray. There are mustard, virgin olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne and regular pepper.

I present the garnished platter to my guest at the table. I wait for comments or approval. It is an impressive display: The chopped-steak, topped with a raw egg-yolk and the different ingredients placed around it. Thereafter I set the show-platter onto a service-table. Here I prepare the steak tartar under the guests’ watchful eyes and to my customer’s specifications.
I lift the meat onto a large dinner plate, including the egg. Next I fold the egg-yolk into the meat, using two large forks. Before adding anything I ask the guest whose order it is: “Do you like onions?” “How much?” “Do you like cornichons?” “A little?” “A lot?” “Capers?” “A smidgen?” “A spoonful?” Then I add little amounts of onions, pickles and capers according to the guest’s wish. The questions serve a dual-purpose, namely to mix the tartar to the customer’s taste as well as getting all guests at the table involved into the table-side-food-preparation.
The guest’s instructions are part of the show; here he gets to direct the creation of his own meal. I spice it to his taste with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If he likes it hot, I use some cayenne too. The two large forks, one in each hand, make the mashing, mixing and folding easy. A splash of extra virgin olive oil comes in handy to make the mixture more smooth. A teaspoon full with mustard adds flavor too. All blended together the steak tartare is not only a rich delicate appetizer but for many an appetizing meal in itself. I reshape the meat into the shape of a steak before placing the same back onto the bed of lettuce.

Ready to be savored, I set the prepared steak tartare platter in front of the guest, who had ordered it. With steak tartar some restaurants offer various types of bread. We serve toasted Italian sourdough with whole-grain mustard butter to complement the steak tartare’s taste. I leave it up to the guest to make his own little snacks ready from the chopped steak. I let him put the desired amounts of meat onto each individual slice of toasted bread.
Bite size pieces of bread layered with whole-grain mustard butter and topped with the steak tartare make great open face sandwiches or hors d’oeuvres for a whole group of people.

If my guests are curios about the name “steak tartare” and provided I have the time, I tell them all what I had been told about the Tartars, over the years in different restaurants. Like this one night with a table of six. I have nothing else to do.

This is my only table. They order one steak tartare, and five other appetizers. The women have salads for their main meals and the men want fish. These six prefer a light meal as dinner, so they say. Being asked about the Steak Tartar’s origin, I am glad to entertain them with what little I know.
“Tartars! We also call them the Mongolian tribes . . . ” Their appearance was not at all what we call Mongoloid, Asiatic. Drawings of the tartars look more like the Russian Cossacks or the Turks. In the fifth century, the Tartars were well known in Western Europe.
“I was told that the name tartar originated from the people’s scared voices, the announcing of the arrival of the horsemen, the sound of many horses and the distinct trrrrtrrrrr of the hoofs on the ground.” “People of all ages whispered in fear ‘trrrttrrrs’!” Knowing they could not outrun the barbarians, “trrrtrrr” meant possible horror and often loss of life. “Trrrtrrr” became a regular word in the people’s vocabulary, soon pronounced “Tar-tar.” Everybody who lived between Tibet, and the east, and Italy, to the west, knew the meaning of “Tartar.”
Few of the people in the invaded countries understood and spoke the horsemen’s language. Even fewer was the number who knew the difference between the one and the other Mongolian tribe. Common people did not know if these fast moving men on horseback were Turks, Mongolians, Avars, Huns, Ephthalites or Hephthalites, who marauded their villages. Yet none of the surviving victims was ever going to forget the trrrrtrrrr sound of the galloping horses, drumming the soil, announcing the armies who moved faster than anything then known to humankind.
“I read somewhere that the Emperor of the western Roman Empire, scared, paid annual protection tributes to these nomadic races, so they would avoid the flourishing western cities.”

Nomadic races united under Attila the Hun, came from as far as the great walls of China to Germany, Italy and France in a time when the fastest transportation was on horses back.

Here I take a break, check on my orders in the kitchen and come back to continue with the saga.
“Attila’s men ate raw lean meat cuts which being placed under their saddles were tenderized for as long as a day’s ride.” At meal time they added spices to their tender raw meat.

From history books we know that these men burned many calories while touring the countryside of Europe as fast as their horses would carry them. Occasionally Attila’s men interrupted their sightseeing and went souvenir hunting. Such always included plunder. Women had little choice but to be willing to entertain the men. Thus types of incidents created many legends. One was of Saint Ursula. The story goes that she, a British princess, was the leader of a group of maidens, who according to the legend, went from Britain to Rome. The date of their falling into the Hun’s hands varies as between the year 250 and 400. The number of women deviates too from a few hundred to 11,000. The legend describes them as virgin companions who fell into the Huns’ hands near the Lower Rhine. Furthermore it is said that all but a few women were massacred by the Huns. A church was erected in Cologne in their honor. St. Ursula is said to be a martyr and she is the patron saint of the Ursuline nuns (founded 1544).
Historians say that the Huns turned really unfriendly, at times outright vicious whenever the Roman Emperor was late paying the agreed upon yearly protection money. At such times the Huns moved in and threatened to foreclose on properties under their protection within the Roman Empire. They told me that the Huns were outstanding warriors, fast moving through the land, with an energy level far above average people, feared by all and admired for their strength by many.
I pour some more wine and ice water for my guest before I carry on with the story. “People feared the Tartars but attributed their strength to the energy source of raw meat and spices.” Wanting to be much like the feared Huns, people in western Europe first secretly but soon openly prepared food the way they had seen the nomads do it. They tenderized meat and added spices.
“… and that’s where the steak tartar as we know it today originated!”
“Weren’t the Huns the ones, who not only pillaged and raped but also destroyed much of Europe?” One guest asks me.
I am not sure. What I was told is that there was another group of invaders, around the same time, the Vandals! The Vandals looted churches and wrecked buildings, leaving nothing but chaos. They were a Germanic tribe who pursued by the Huns, left their home on the Baltic and trekked toward the southwest. They went through France and Spain then crossed over into North Africa at Gibraltar. In 439 AD the Vandals took Carthage, the leading Roman city in North Africa. King Genseric established an independent Vandal Kingdom. Sailing northward he conquered much Roman territory and captured Rome in 455. History books describe the Vandals as malicious destroyers, who followed Arianism a variant form of Christianity. They persecuted all orthodox Christians and destroyed anything in their path. The Vandals were brought to justice in 533-536 by Belisarius under Emperor Justinian. All Vandals caught alive were made slaves of the Romans. After that the Vandals disappeared from history. Their actions did not. Still, today we call malicious destruction vandalism.
I say: “As to the little I know, the Tartars, the nomadic races united under the Huns’ leadership, had a different life-philosophy than the Vandals . . . ” Destruction of property did not rank high on the Hun’s list if they were punctually paid all the asked for tributes. Their list of demands was for items of use and value to their nomadic lifestyle. They did not believe in settling down. Nor did the Huns ever care for the burden of keeping castles provisioned and all the other hardships of land ownership. They did not want wealth which they could not carry with them. Huns preferred women and life stock. If they did not get what they asked for, devastation followed. The Huns were quite capable to leave a bloody path and smoldering buildings to proof their point.
The men united under Attila, were nomads who harassed most of the Eastern European country side and part of the West, as well as Persia and India. They operated much like the twentieth century’s Mafia, collecting protection money from the places they visited. Their abilities of warfare on horseback were unmatched. The Roman Emperors feared these Huns, who were excellent mounted archers. They were fast moving from place to place, much like today’s tourists.

Huns were well known in China as early as the 3rd century BC, which led to the erection of the Great Wall. Attila’s men became part of life in western Europe in the forth Century AD and were a constant threat till the end of the fifth Century. Attila nicknamed Scourge of God was the most famous of the Hun’s leaders.
“True we call the Tartars barbarians but also look at the positive . . . ”
They brought much influx of fresh blood into Europe. Back then, inbreeding had become common in many villages. “…and not to forget: The Huns brought with them a great dinner dish, the steak tartare.”
I ask the one, eating the steak tartare “How is it?” and get a mumbled “Exquisite!” followed by “You are right! I already feel the endless energies from the beef and the egg.” His wife, who tried some, adds: “It’s perfectly spiced and I think it’s true, you are what you eat. This is truly outstanding.”
One man at the table says “Did you know this Attila he died the way most men dream to die, in bed with his latest and last of his numerous wives during their wedding night.”
“How many wives did Attila have?” One woman asks me. As truthful as I can be, I tell her “History books say he had many wives…” One of these wives was the Western Roman Emperor’s sister by name of Honoria. She was handed by her scared brother over to Attila, to satisfy his wishes. However, the nameless young woman who drained all life out of Attila in their wedding night is certainly legendary. She is by far the most famous of his wives. Let us not forget Attila was hated and feared by many in his own camp. He had no scruples to get power and stay in power. He proved such many a times, like when he killed his elder brother Bleda in a power play.
The man who indulges on the steak tartare says: “I bet you, this wife of Attila’s ate his share of the steak tartare.” Somebody else says: “He was getting too excited.”
A woman kicking her husband’s shin, mentions, “Like most older men, and younger women. He couldn’t get enough until he had had enough” and she laughs.
The woman sitting at the end of the table for six asks, “They all ate raw meat? They really did? Say, helmut, bring us another order, one, for me and my husband, to share!”

* * *

NOTE! There is also a cold sauce which is named Tartar or Tartare sauce. Its ingredients are olive oil & egg yolks (mayonnaise) with hard-boiled eggs and chopped chives. I do not know the origin of the Tartar sauce and have seen it made in different ways. Some places add pickles, others add onions to the basic mayonnaise eggs and chives recipe.
Sauce tartar is usually served with fried fish.


For more about the huns, click here!

by helmut schonwalder