Updated: Sep 28
Lately meat has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some insist that meat has now been shrouded in saffron ideology. No, not saffron the spice, but saffron the colour of a political party who is believed to derive its ideology from a particular religion. On the face of it, this appears to be an assault on a secular and democratic nation. I decided to delve deeper to look at the underbelly of meat in India given that I am a meat lover and not yet a complete vegetarian.
I have a vivid memory of me throwing a sandwich out of the classroom window when my classmate told me it was made of beef. I was in Std 5 then. I attributed this move to the ingrained ideology related to ‘gau mata’ (the cow revered as mother).
I have come a long way since then. I lived in the USA for almost 5 years while studying and working. That along with my travels have ensured that I continue to be exposed to a variety of cuisines. Needless to say, meats get to my plate one way or another. The first move away from childhood ideology that I can recall was my indulgence in hot dogs outside the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. This was back in the early ‘80s. I thought these were made of chicken only to learn that they were not. Somewhere next came the love for cheeseburgers, sausage pizzas, pepperoni and I was too far down the road to turn back. It was during this period another rule entered my life.
In the mid 80s in the USA, Reganomics created a situation where money was tight and nothing was coming in from India to support me. I had to fend for myself to survive and more importantly to complete my education. There was a particularly bad period where I lived on one loaf of bread and one medium jar of generic peanut butter for a week. At the peak of my desperation, I vowed never to forget this period and to ensure I finished every morsel that arrived on my plate. While this has been a good thing for the most part, the odd time though it has caught me off-guard. The consequence of this has been me ending up with exotic meats on my platter. The rule stayed and I continue to eat whatever I am served.
Beef is now passé. I enjoy a good steak and I have even learnt of exotic cuts such as tri-tip (California). During my student days, I discovered that sweet and sour pork with fried rice was perhaps the cheapest dish in an average Chinese restaurant in Queens, New York. In the UK, I discovered Tandoori Venison (deer) Masala served in a fusion Indian restaurant. New York in the 80s had a deli that sold exotic meats. Camel, lion and moose I have tried and rejected. In the UK, rabbit is especially well made with an onion sauce. Singapore once dished out frog fallopian tubes made into a gelatinous dessert that I abandoned when I got to know what it was (yeah, sue me!). I have walked out of a restaurant that had bat soup in its kitchen. In China, I came dangerously close to a rat stew specialty restaurant. I have given up eating Lobsters thanks to over indulgence in a trip to Maine. My favourite exotic meat, alligator steak in New Orleans, Yum!
My experience hasn’t always been good with non vegetarian food. Some I don’t have the will to experiment with. A bad reaction took place when I ate steamed crab and followed it up with a cup of hot chocolate a couple of hours later. I spent the entire night chucking my stomach so both crabs and hot chocolate are off my menu. I have tried and rejected squid ink risotto a delicacy in Italy. Shrimp cocktails are no longer my favourite; too scared to eat cold shrimp any more. I have NEVER eaten pork in India. I just can’t risk the potential for diseases it carries. There isn’t any rudimentary industry selling pork anywhere in India. I don’t have the courage to tell you where pigs are found, what they eat and how they are slaughtered. Yes, call me a wimp if you will!
Free range chicken is my meat of choice. I don’t think it exists in most parts of India; perhaps in smaller towns but definitely not in big cities. Quality goat or New Zealand Lamb is a treat. In India though there is nothing to beat good staple dal chawal (lentil with steamed rice). I have almost given up eating meat in India.
No, I haven’t become part of the saffron brigade and no ‘guru’ has asked me to quit. The reason for my ‘almost vegetarianism’ is the way meat is sold in India. I guess it is my self-preservation instinct that has kicked in. It wasn’t so as I was growing up.
As a teenager, I remember going to Vasant Nagar in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) on a Sunday morning where Imtiaz bhai (the local butcher) sold fresh goat meat. His shop was in a BMC market. Every goat carcass hanging on meat hooks had a distinct rubber stamp in a discreet corner. He once told me that he only got his meat from the registered abattoir and the quality of the meat was approved by an inspector, hence the stamp. His shop was basic but it was devoid of flies because he kept it spotless. His instruments were gleaming though I don’t think they were made of high quality stainless steel. He kept clean water near his wooden carving board and cleaned the board after every serving. Remember, this was in the late 1970s!!!
Around the same time, there was a line of chicken sellers around the main building of Russel Market (Bengaluru). I distinctly remember going there to shop for fresh chicken. The ritual was that a plump live chicken was removed from a cage where it had sufficient room to roam around. The chicken was selected based on weight. The butcher would part the plumage around the underbelly to show pink flesh; a sign of the health of the chicken. Once selected it was ‘dressed’ in a back room; cleaned and cut in front of you, then packed in brown paper before being thrust into your shopping bag. Those were the days.
I visit Varanasi frequently and have been doing so for the last two decades. I am almost a vegetarian there. No, it’s got nothing to do with religion. I have walked past the line of meat shops on Nai Sarak, Varanasi. I promise you it has taken strong will-power and an equally strong stomach to fight the overwhelming desire to throw up!! The meat shops are situated on top of open drains. Meat parts are strewn so that dogs and pigs can feed off them near the drain. The butcher looks like he bathed in the previous century. The shops are dingy, fly infested and blood stained. It’s a miracle that there isn’t an epidemic in the city. There is no clue to what the source of the meat is. I have noticed the meat redder than pink; a sign that it has ‘aged’ on the hook. In Delhi, one visit to the butchers of Old Delhi area made me forget if I was in Delhi or Varanasi. The butcher shops there are equally bad!
Chicken in Delhi and in North India has, in my opinion, degenerated even more than in other parts. My local ‘dhaba’ is no longer my favourite joint that serves quality Butter Chicken. On more than one occasion I have returned it because the chicken smelt of medicines! I have stopped ordering from him now. Green Chick Chop or Republic of Chicken are relatively safer to buy raw chicken. The rest are easily forgettable.
Have you seen live chicken being transported? Most look like they are terminally ill. There is hardly any plumage and they are packed so tight that 10% to 20% of them die while being transported. No, they are not thrown; they probably end up in some curry. Dead chicken fed with antibiotics and I am ready to sign up to becoming a vegetarian, at least in India.
Since I eat meat in various countries and grades of restaurants I can tell the difference between ‘quality meat’ and ‘not worth eating meat’. I don’t know if we will ever have the quality that we will be proud of but for once I support the shutting down of illegal abattoirs. Our desire for consumption has made us turn a blind eye to the damage we do to ourselves. I can’t wait to go to Varanasi to see for myself that the meat shops on Nai Sarak are now gone.
So much has been said about loss of jobs and loss of revenue. For once, I agree with the government. This is revenue that is worth losing. I am against inhumane treatment of animals but I am equally against equally inhumane treatment of plants too. (Sir JC Bose with his crescograph has proved that even plants have feelings). So, if we want to eat to survive let’s leave religion out of the discussion. Plants and animals are clearly living creatures. I don’t see the difference in eating either.
But it is time that hygiene was made center stage. Whether we agree with the state governments or not, the steps they have taken to clean the meat industry should be welcome.