That those eat now, who never ate before,
And those who always ate, now eat the more.
Beef or buff, Cow or bull, was never political to me. Heck, it wasn’t even meat. It was food. I grew up in a multi-faith household in Mumbai of the 1990s. My parents — a Roman Catholic from Mangalore and a Tamilian Brahmin — fell in love during college, got married soon after, and had two boys. While my mother was, and continues to be, a vegetarian, she soon started cooking meat at home as her husband and two kids liked to eat meat. When I was seven years old, I remember my father taking me to the butcher shop to buy some chicken. He explained that if I liked eating meat, I should know where it came from. Watching the chicken — with its jugular split wide open, blood gushing, and body trashing — did not scare me. It aroused a great sense of intrigue, while I watched the butcher’s deft hand movements as he chopped and cleaved the bird into pieces.
Chicken was not the only dish that was prepared at home. Over the years, my mother began experimenting with other types of meats — fish, mutton, pork and beef. Simple mutton curries gave way to melt-in-the-mouth mutton biryanis. The humble beef chilly became spicy meat balls. The pork chops glistened in their sweet sticky sauce. The fact that she could cook all this meat, without ever tasting it, is a marvelous feat and a testament to my mother’s culinary skills. Her only request was that someone always had to taste the meat and confirm what she already knew— that it was delicious. By this time, my mother was not only confident about her culinary skills, but also in her ability to buy meat alone. She made sure the butcher cleaned the meat, removed the sinew and the fat, and washed it before he forced it through the meat grinder. She picked up the bones and odd bits for our dog, Shalu, who relished her daily meals of beef and rice and is still going strong at sixteen years of age.
My experiments with meat were only beginning when I met Ustad Bhai — that was the name he went by and we dared not call him anything else. Ustad Bhai sold kebabs from a small kebab stand outside the church in my locality. He could only sell two items out of his small hand pushed cart. One could either opt for a seekh kebab pao for Rupees five or a boti pav for the same price. Ustad bhai’s modus operandi was simple — fresh meat hot of the grill, wrapped in bread with mint chutney and onions. The seekh kebab was heavily spiced with ginger and garlic and had a succulent buttery feel when you bit into it. While the boti was tougher and required a wholesome chew. Soon enough, Ustad Bhai had to be shunted out of his location since his cart was causing one too many traffic snarls. After a few years of moving around different locations like a nomad, Ustad Bhai finally managed to rent some open space in a garage where he set up shop. Ironically enough, the garage was owned by a local Shiv Sena leader. This time, Ustad bhai added some Chinese items to his menu, but the essence of the place was still kebabs. Soon, the list of kebabs also grew — there was now kaleji (liver), keeri (udders) and dil (heart), along with the other kebabs. This was ten years ago. Ustad bhai has now set up a proper shop, where he sells more than just kebabs, and has even added delivery services and a biryani counter.
As I entered college, my tryst with meat expanded even further. From home-cooked meat and the kebabs of Ustad Bhai, I was now exploring Mumbai and its various cuisines — daal ghost at Baghdadi restaurant, bheja fry and keema at Café Olympia in Colaba, beef korma and biryani at Barkat Ali Restaurant in Wadala, and beef steak at Snowflake Restaurant in Dhobi Talao or Martins in Colaba. Through the several delightful gastronomical experiences, my relationship with beef grew stronger. In Mumbai, one could walk into any Muslim, Catholic or Parsi restaurant and be served a generous helping of delicious beef keema — curry or chili —which would not leave a significant dent in one’s pocket.
Back home, my mother was now dealing with slightly trickier cuts of beef — the tongue and the tail. These cuts are of the more uncommon variety, which, although considered delicacies, are not something you would ordinarily find in a restaurant. The tongue has to be cleaned thoroughly and then boiled. After that, you have to pull off the upper layer of the tissue on the tongue and then roast it with spices, garlic and onions. You will be left with extremely tender cuts of beef — perfect for sandwiches and roasts. Cooking the tail is a more difficult process. The tail has to be cooked long and slow to break down all of the collagen into gelatin, leaving sticky ribbons of meat.
After completing my graduation, I decided to shift to Delhi, where I was reintroduced to my favourite meat, beef, although cooked in different styles. The Kerala-style beef-fry was not a life changing experience for me as the meat gets quite chewy. But, the nahari and paya from Zakir Nagar in Jamia most certainly made me believe in a God. The meat was soft and succulent after hours of cooking, and broke into tender ribbons of flesh. Sucking the marrow out of the big joint bones invoked a very primal sense of eating where you had to use all your brain and brawn to get to the tiny nibbles of fat. The smoked roast beef cooked in the styles of various North-Eastern cuisines, mostly Naga and Mizo, was also a unique culinary experience. Far away from the usual blend of masala and onion-tomato-garlic gravies, the smoked and roasted beef highlighted the flavor of the meat itself. The smoking and roasting processes help expel moisture from the meat, leaving the meat dry but with an intense beefy flavor.
Since then, I have set up my own kitchen, and have myself experimented with different styles of cooking beef. According to me, the way beef is cooked in most Indian cuisines destroys the inherent meatiness of the beef. By boiling, frying, roasting and blackening our beef, we often end up eating meat that has been overcooked, is greyish in colour, and has lost most of its taste and juices. A style I prefer is making sure that while cooking, the beef retains as much of its meat colour. A piece of medium rare beef is something truly ethereal.
But, all this talk of enjoying beef is surely a thing of the past. While I naively thought that beef was not political, people were being lynched and murdered on the mere suspicion of eating or possessing beef. In all this terror, the beef-eater was tragically made the villain. A villain, who purposely chooses to hurt the feelings of the majority community by eating beef. A villain, who without any remorse puts the godly animal to death. Whether the animal was a cow, bull, buffalo, chicken, fish or an egg is not important. What is important is the religion and caste of the person who ate it.
As debates, dialogue and protest rage on questioning the beef ban and restrictions on consumption, we are told statistics on livelihood, sustenance, agrarian structure, poverty and narratives of community. Of course, none of this may ever be able to counter the force of the hurt sentiments of the majority community, an over-zealous government machinery and cow terrorists. Perhaps the only weapon left in our arsenal, as beef eaters, would be to conduct a blind taste test with some kebabs and see how many people like them.
That farcical notion aside, what was once my food is now lost forever. Beef was never non-political, I, the beef-eater, was.
Nikhil builds toilets and sanitation systems in rural India for a living. In his spare time, he harbours dreams of being a chef.