As a ‘reformed’ addict of the Kerala beef fry, I can easily empathise with those holding beef fests to protest the Modi government’s cattle slaughter rules.

Im a vegetarian who stands for animal rights but I will defend the right to eat beefA beef fest in Kerala
Voices Opinion Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - 14:49

Let me confess. I am a ‘Tambrahm’, a pucca vegetarian, the occasional egg notwithstanding. I would be happy if the rest of the world were also vegetarian, as I can’t bear the thought of killing an animal to eat it. Going by that logic I should be a vocal supporter of beef bans and the antics of the gau rakshaks. But I am not.

After all I am a born-again vegetarian. I was not always a vegetarian, though, for the first decade or so of my life I was one, primarily because my family was vegetarian. My first brush with non-vegetarianism was when, at the age of 13, I accidently ate chicken tikka at my father’s office farewell party and found that I liked it. That set me on a journey of discovery of non-vegetarian culinary delights across several parts of the country, as I ‘graduated’ from chicken to fish to mutton, and ran the gamut of curries and tikkas and kababs.

In the next one year that my family was in Delhi, there were numerous occasions when I went with friends to Chandni Chowk just to have yummy kababs, or hogged on mutton biryani that I could occasionally lay my hands on at a Muslim friend’s place.

My family’s relocation to Ahmedabad in 1968 opened up new horizons for me. It was in Ahmedabad, as a Class 10 student of Central School (now called Kendriya Vidyalaya) that I was introduced to beef, kicking off what turned out to be a forty-year love story with a significant Malayali connection.

Back then, I would often walk back home from school instead of taking the bus, spending the bus fare on some bhajjiyas from a roadside stall near our school. But one day, a Malayali classmate David Mathew (how can you forget the names of those who were part of historical moments in your life) decided to join me on the walk back home.

It was he who suggested that instead of the bhajjiyas I try the kababs at the restaurant across the road from the school. This restaurant used to make fresh kababs around the time we left our school every afternoon. We picked up some beef kababs, merely because, at five paise a piece, they were cheaper than mutton kabab.

My first bite into the kabab, and I knew I had found the love of my stomach. My romance with beef began that day – it was love at first bite.

For the remaining two years of schooling in Ahmedabad I had my daily fix of beef kababs on the way back home. And I picked up the thread later when I was working in Ahmedabad.

And, so began the journey from beef kabab to beef briyani and anything beef in between. I had devoured the heavenly briyanis in Bhopal, occasionally slipping into mutton briyani territory (as far as I was concerned, chicken briyani was a gastronomic abomination). I even had beef briyani (or bade miyan as my friend used to refer to it) in the old city in Hyderabad, when I was there for a couple of weeks to cover the coup that Chandrababu Naidu had staged against his father-in-law NT Rama Rao.

But the most unforgettable encounter came in 1977, when, during a visit to Cochin where my dad was working, my friend and former colleague Jaffar Khan (don’t be fooled by the name, he was a Hindu whose father had the crazy idea of giving his sons Muslim names) took me to a restaurant in Ernakulam and introduced me to the ultimate beef dish – the Syrian Chilli Beef Fry.  Diced pieces of beef, fried in coconut with chopped green chillis, and garnished with slivers of dry coconut.

From that day on I was hooked to Kerala beef fry. And as a ‘reformed’ addict of this culinary miracle, I can easily empathise with the people of Kerala, who are holding beef festivals to protest against the Modi government’s hasty rules regarding cattle slaughter.

In between, having relocated to Madras (that later became Chennai), I had explored various other non-vegetarian dishes like ‘paya’ in Samco Hotel in Alwarpet, briyani in Bilal and Buhari hotels on Mount Road, ‘sura puttu’(a typical Tamil delicacy made with shark) and prawns  in Velu Military Hotel  on Village Road, Nugambakkam, and in later days the biryani at Ponnusamy’s, or the fish fry and fish curry at Nair’s mess.

But the craving for Kerala beef fry had to be satiated with only occasional treats thanks to some Malayali Christian friends.

That was till Kalpaka restaurant opened in the late 1980s with Suriyani beef fry as its signature dish. How often I went there with colleagues from the Indian Express!  Experimentation with the beef fry also began around this time – deploying it as side dish to a rice meal, with bread, with parotta.

But the best time was probably had when I was with the Ananda Bazar Patrika group in Chennai. Lunches usually turned out to be ‘jama bandi’ affairs with almost all colleagues joining in. We would often ask the office attendant to get beef fry either from Kalpaka or from a mess in one of the by-lanes behind the mosque near Anna Flyover. And one day we tried out the ‘Tambrahm’ twist to it –thayir sadam (curd rice) with Syrian beef fry on the side.

But my years as a meat eater were numbered. By then I had already sworn off fish after two bouts of food poisoning. My interest in mutton had started waning, and soon I gave it up. And then went the prawns.

My love for beef endured for a few more years, before I returned to vegetarianism a decade ago. But that was my choice. I will not try to impose it on others. It is their choice whether they eat meat or not, whether they eat beef or not.

But if I were to revert to meat-eating again, I would definitely start with beef—Kerala beef fry to be particular.

Disclaimer: The author is a senior journalist based out of Chennai. He is a TNM contributor and views are personal. 

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