One perception of India is that it is a mainly vegetarian country. This is true to a certain extent. Many people are pure vegetarian, some extend this to not including cheese or eggs – you should see the scramble for eggless cake recipes (no pun intended). Hindu’s don’t eat beef, Muslims don’t eat pork, and Jains won’t eat any meat, dairy, or even root vegetables, onions or garlic, the more strict ones wear masks over their mouths so that they don’t inadvertently breath in insects.
So, when I was invited to a friend’s house on Tuesday of last week, the question ‘’How do you like your steak?’’ was the last thing I expected to be asked. Not only was the menu steak (Holy cow!), washed down with some rather palatable Indian red wines, but it was a Tuesday, the day of the Goddess Vaishnov Devi, or the monkey god Hanuman, depending where in the country you are from. For reasons which, despite me asking many Indian friends, remain far too convoluted for me to succinctly put into a short blog piece, due to these gods, this is the day when even most only vaguely practising Hindu’s refrain from meat and alcohol.
Yet, here I was at a dinner party of 6 people, all mulling over the choice of well done, medium or rare. Now just pre moving to India, all those years ago, I had seen a wonderful cow hide handbag (made in Argentina) that I refrained from buying as I didn’t want to offend soon to be Indian compatriots, yet here I was, listening to them giving their preferences for how bloody they would like their steak to be. Not only that, dining Indian style usually involves drinking and snacking until midnight before then eating a full meal and heading straight home. Yet this evening they were seated at the table by 9pm, knives and forks supported upright in clenched fists in their eagerness to attack the (I have to say) wonderfully marinated meat. Two even had it so rare that it was virtually running and jumping onto the fork itself.
But you see, these folk are from Kerala, where a third of the population is Christian and so in addition to the fabulous fish and sea food on offer, beef is consumed on a fairly regular basis. One of the most popular dishes of the state is chilli, beef, coconut fry, something worth putting on your bucket list of dishes to try. Despite their enthusiasm, I still felt marginally guilty, if I was Catholic I would have be chanting three hail Mary’s and washing my mouth out with soap and water, if I was a Hindu, then surely one of the 300,000 gods would be capable of absolving such a sin, but being a lapsed Christian, I wasn’t sure what recourse to take. I found that the wine helped!
The following night saw me hosted by the charming Muzaffar and Meena Ali at their newly opened fine dining venue, Maashra. This was truly an epicurean feast featuring the best dishes from the Royal House of Awadh, renowned for its succulence, lavish ingredients and ghee content. The meat thali was literally just that, kheema, kebabs, korma, salan the list goes on, served with a spot of dal for good measure, even the rice was a mutton biryani. There was something quite surreal about sitting in a fine dining venue, in India, surrounded by chandeliers, crystal glasses and crisp, white starched table cloths with a table full of people devouring mutton in its various forms. Some people bemoaned the richness, the amount of meat and lack of vegetables but that is like going to Harry Ramsden’s and complaining that the fish is battered and the chips are fried. This was royal cuisine at its VERY best and one had just to surrender to the experience and enjoy every delicious mouthful, the attentiveness of these most interesting of hosts, and make a mental note to book in an extra session with your personal trainer for the following day.
But this love of meat doesn’t stop there. When asked, a couple of years ago, to purchase ingredients for a Rajput friend to make me Lal Maas, I bought off the bone and was reprimanded for this, as meat apparently is far tastier cooked on the bone. Indeed, at various meals around Rajasthan, one spends the latter part of a good dinner listening to the locals chomping on bones and sucking at the marrow. The only thing to better this, if ‘better’ be the way to go on the scale of Indian meat eating stories, is that when dining at a very distinguished friend’s house, they still, when serving mutton, lay the table with bone marrow scoops. I have never been tempted to use one, well, not for scooping out bone marrow anyway.
So, the perception of India as a largely vegetarian country is one that is not strictly true. But this country is a living paradox, one of the very few facts that you can say about India that does remain true, is that it certainly never quite does what it says on the tin.
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