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What’s Your Beef? A small taste of India’s forbidden meats

In India, beef is taboo. Or is it?

“Cow is mother,” many Indians would say, explaining why they abstain from eating beef. We can go into the reasons behind this. It’s more practical in the long term to have a cow that provides milk and other dairy products than to slaughter the animal that provides all this in one go. We can point to Nandi, the bull that Shiva rides, as a sign that Hinduism considers the animal sacred. But reasons don’t quite matter in an orthopraxic religion; some things are simply done, no questions asked.

Regardless of this, I’ve eaten a fair amount of beef in India—the steaks are particularly good in some places. But do let me backtrack a bit. I’m half-Filipino, half-Indian, and I grew up in the Philippines with my mom.

My dad found me the year I turned 29—an odyssey in itself—and three years after that, I first set foot on the subcontinent.

Slice of Bull and Tongue of Cow

I first arrived in Bangalore around a decade after the outsourcing boom in the city. Before then, it had been a pensioner’s paradise, full of retirees like my dad and his peers, with minimal development and a quiet, day-to-day existence. When I got there, I witnessed a frenzy of building along Mahatma Gandhi Road, where they were digging the foundations for the Bangalore Metro while the scooters whizzed past in the dust that smells of turmeric, cloves, and carbon monoxide.

A block or so somewhat parallel to MG Road, on Museum Road, was The Only Place. We stepped into the lot and somehow the city’s buzz faded, the honk of cars and autorickshaws and trucks somehow coming in through a filter of trees into the gravel-lined parking lot. And there it was, the O in the sign an open mouth and tongue probably inspired by Rolling Stone. In the al fresco dining area stood the tables with their distinctive tablecloths of red-and-white chintz, served by waiters who have worked there for years and looked like they would do so until retirement.

There, they served steaks like Chateaubriand and filet mignon at around 400 grams per serving, nicely criscrossed with grill marks, served with sides of mashed potato, buttered peas, carrots, and beans, caramelized onions, and cucumber and tomato slices. Just a dab of mustard for that kick, and the whole thing came together at around Rs. 450, or about PhP 400.

The Only Place is just one of many places in Bangalore where one can have beef or pork or pretty much any meat. Koshy’s, a city institution of a restaurant handed down through three generations, serves all manner of continental and Indian beef and pork dishes. Several meat shops sell cuts of pork, their own cured sausages, and beef. One of my personal favorites is cow’s tongue, sliced and served cold on buttered bread with a bit of mustard, and a side of hot, milky, sweet Indian coffee for breakfast.

Cows: Sacred and Profane

It so happens that Karnataka—the state of which Bangalore is capital—is one of the nine Indian states that allow the slaughter of cows and pigs for meat, unlike the other 20 that forbid it.

On one hand, many Indian religions have sacred cows. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and to a lesser extent Buddhism, either consider the cow a holy animal or practice ahimsa or non-violence. There’s also the economic advantage of a live cow that produces milk for butter, ghee, buttermilk, yogurt, and paneer, as well as manure for fuel as opposed to a cow that only lives once, for the slaughter.

This doesn’t mean that Hindus don’t eat beef. Madhur Jaffrey, in her groundbreaking 1974 book An Invitation to Indian Cooking, explains that “…Hindus will eat beef in restaurants, in Muslim and Christian homes, and when they are abroad, very few will cook it in their own kitchens. Each country has its own varieties of national hypocrisy.”

It’s easy to leave things at the dinner table, but one difficult truth in all this is the privileged position Hinduism occupies in India and how marginalized people look for acceptance in other religions, like Islam.

All things being equal, every religion in India has its respective upper, middle, and lower classes. India’s laws also allow for a form of affirmative action, with a list of forward castes (religious groups that enjoy more socio-economic privileges) and backward castes (religious groups that need government support). There is a fairly complex list of communities based more on socio-economic status than on religion, and this includes some Muslim communities in India.

In theory and in law, this is an excellent idea. In practice, things are more complicated, if not dangerous. For example, in the eight years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power, headed by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there have been 63 beef-related attacks, and 97% of the casualties are Muslim. The stories are disturbingly similar: one or two Muslims were seen herding cows, and a Hindu mob harasses them, first verbally, then physically.

Twenty-eight times, the situation escalated to lynching, the victims including one 15-year-old.

The lynchings have been justified as a defense of the Hindu abstinence against beef, and it was only in 2016 that Modi spoke out against the murders. Even then, he did not recognize that the victims were mostly Muslim. Contrast this with the fact that India has no problems exporting beef to other countries to the tune of $4.3 billion, providing 23% of the world supply.

We can also examine from the perspective of another forward caste in India: the Saint Thomas Christians.

Saint Thomas and the License to Eat Beef

One reason some Indian states allow the slaughter and consumption of beef and pork is Saint Thomas.

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Christian legend has it that Thomas the Doubter himself went to India, preached the gospel to the Brahmins of Kerala, and brought a form of Christianity to the East uninformed by Western culture. He landed on the Malabar Coast, crossed the Deccan Plateau to Tamil Nadu and ended in Chennai, where the legend says he was killed by a lance piercing his back.

On my fourth trip in 2012, Dad and I visited Chennai, where Saint Thomas is supposedly buried, and on his tomb now stands the Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica.

What the apostle left behind were the Saint Thomas Christians, with a centuries-old history that created its own schisms and species. For example, my Indian relatives are Syrian Christians of the Jacobite faction, whose religious leader is the Patriarch of Antioch, and their liturgical language is Aramaic. This gave Catholicism and other forms of Christianity a cultural foothold on the subcontinent and gave people a few more dietary options and a position from which to question the Hindu hegemony.

Bone in the Throat

In my four trips to India, I had steak at least once every time; it felt like tweaking the nose of a quaint dietary taboo with no consequence other than the expense. But then again, I was only a customer at a restaurant, not a Muslim cattle herder who lived in the margins and with the threat of harassment or worse.

It’s sobering to think that what was lunch for me may have meant life or death to someone else.

Then again, food is life and death, beyond any item we order on a menu. It is what we have hunted, gathered, cultivated, and herded down the millennia. It has fed our culture and politics, and in turn, culture and politics built their structures around these resources.

Then again, food is life and death, beyond any item we order on a menu. It is what we have hunted, gathered, cultivated, and herded down the millennia. It has fed our culture and politics, and in turn, culture and politics built their structures around these resources.

Last year, news from India reported several protests around the country against the beef lynchings. Some took place in Syrian Christian communities, particularly in my dad’s home state, Kerala. People began cooking beef in public and serving them to Muslims coming from their evening prayers. A few progressive Hindus even joined these beef parties. One beef party even uploaded a video of an ox being slaughtered. As a response, some right-wing Hindu groups threw milk parties.

At first it sounds absurd, until one remembers the lynchings. Then it becomes surreal, as the current zeitgeist slams the fundamentalist and ignorant against the marginalized pushing for equality—in this case, a struggle embodied in beef.

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