Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where's The Beef?


The last thing one expects to do on a visit to India is to eat beef.

But there it is on the menu, as clear as day. Black Pepper Beef. Beef Fry. Beef Biryani. Human Beef. Actually, that one was a misprint on the menu. It was supposed to be "Hunan Beef", but apparently the menu proof-reader failed to catch that error, along with other gems such as "Om-let", "Green Peace Curry", and "Sweat and Scour Soup". Much to my surprise, people in Kerala actually eat a fair bit of beef. This I found a bit contrary to my previous ideas about India. After all, was this not the country where the cow is held sacred? They were supposed to wander the streets with painted horns like they do in the tourism posters, blissfully going from snack to snack provided by legions of Hindu devotees. These bovine behemoths pretty much have the sweet life nailed, right? In other parts of India, perhaps. In Kerala, not so much. Here, the cows appear outright skittish, as they flit nervously from tree to tree in full camouflage gear, desperately trying to avoid the legions of lunghi-clad beef aficionados desperate to plunge a fork into their bony carcasses.

There are valid historical reasons for this anomaly. Nearly 20 percent of Kerala is Christian, and Christians by and large are dedicated omnivores. If it grows, or does not move fast enough, there is a good chance it will end up on the Christian menu. Muslims, who also make up a good chunk of the population here are also dedicated beef-o-philes. Most curious of all, according to many I have talked to here, there is even a large part of the Hindu population that is fond of a wee nibble 'o' beef. All in all, faced with this carnivorous onslaught, it's a miracle that the cows of Kerala have not banded together into armed groups to defend themselves.

Our landlady Gigi offered to let us film her making puttu, which is a common food item here. It's a cylindrical concoction of coconut and rice flour, which is steamed for a few minutes. By itself, puttu is rather bland, but much like tapioca or appam, it makes a great counterpoint to something spicy, like an egg roast or chana masala. Gigi thought that it would go very well with a spicy beef fry, and not being one to argue about such things, we went ahead with that plan. Once one makes the decision to eat beef here, the next step is to procure it, and this is the step where the faint of heart might be stopped cold in their tracks. In North America, most folks are used to buying their bits of cow in large air conditioned emporiums, pushing a cart around while soothing music plays in the background. Reaching into a spotless and sterile stainless steel bin, one selects a delightfully shrink-wrapped chunk of red-dyed, feedlot-finished, hormone-injected meat charmingly nestled on a styrofoam tray. Chances are with beef like this, the cow's last thought as it saw the approaching nail gun was "Oh, thank God.... this hell is over".

In India, we do it a little bit differently. Early each morning in the local markets, the Piaggio micro flatbed trucks arrive with entire carcasses of freshly slaughtered animals, which are then carried into the marketplace on a pole by at least two men. Then the butchers go to work. Entire quarters, complete with long tails, are hung up on ancient metal hooks in front of the market stalls. Next to them hang the recently eviscerated liver, kidneys, tripe, and intestines. A severed head, freshly divested of all its skin but with horns, tongue, and eyeballs still firmly attached, is often placed in front of the stall, so that there is no doubt as to the identifying provenance of the hapless creature hanging from its hooks. There is no refrigeration of any kind. Although it appears disgusting and distasteful to some, for me, as someone who likes to hunt game for food, I can somehow relate more to this way of buying meat than the supermarket approach, where every effort is made to shield the consumer from the reality of what is being consumed. The consumer is also shielded from the multitude of sins incurred by the processes and practices of industrial meat production.

Stanley, our erstwhile landlord, pulled up on his motorcycle at 9:30 to drive me the 1 kilometer up Ponoth Road to the main market. He advised me that we were not in fact getting beef for this dish, but water buffalo. As he explained, "Beef... more taste. Some people... hurt stomach. Buffalo good...everyone". So off we zoomed up the road. The last time we went to the market, Stanley gave me a crash course in cultural acclimatization when he insisted on holding hands with me as we walked through the market. It was cool, as this is the ultimate expression of friendship for South Indian men, but I was laughing at myself about how self conscious I felt walking around in a public place, wearing what amounted to a dress, and holding my landlord's hand. With this in mind, as I'm riding on the back of his motorbike, for some reason the old song from the 50's, "The Leader Of The Pack" started to echo in my brain. At least it wasn't "My Boyfriend's Back". Fortunately, there were hand grips on the back of the bike, so I wasn't forced to wrap my arms around his waist....

At the market, Stanley quickly negotiated the proper cuts of buffalo, and our butcher went to work carving off a couple of kilos from a hanging haunch, and reducing it to smaller pieces on an ancient wooden block. He worked with incredible speed, and I was somewhat relieved to find that there was not an errant finger included in the package when we returned home. We soon were set up in Gigi's kitchen with all our camera and sound gear. The recipe for beef (buffalo) fry is actually pretty simple. A kilo of cubed meat is pressure cooked with nothing but a little salt for about a half an hour until very tender. At this point, she made us laugh out loud, because as she put the pressure cooker on the stove, she reached over for a second pressure cooker that she had started earlier which contained completely cooked buffalo! She has done so many shoots with us now, that she is thinking like a pro.

A few tablespoons of coconut oil are heated, and then two sliced onions are sauteed until golden. A few slit green chilis and some curry leaves are tossed in. Next comes the garlic and ginger, which gets stirred around for a minute. The drained pressure cooked kilo of buffalo is then added, along with a couple of tablespoons each of coriander powder and chili powder. A tablespoon of turmeric and at least a tablespoon of black pepper. One heaping tablespoon of Garam Masala, which Gigi always grinds herself from a mix of cinnammon, clove, star anise, fennel, and cardamom. While this is being stirred about, the liquid from the pressure cooker is boiled and reduced down substantially, almost to a syrup. This gets added to the buffalo mixture and stirred some more until the mixture is fairly dry. A little salt to taste, and there it is!

Gigi set out a plate for Laurel and me with a log of freshly made puttu, and a mound of the buffalo fry. It was quite fantastic. Even Laurel, the former staunch vegetarian, had to admit that it was pretty darn tasty. Addictive, in fact. Afterwards, we were more than a little saddened when we realized that this was the last shoot that we would be doing with Gigi before we left. She has been very generous with her time and her knowledge, and we really owe her a huge thank you. She made up another plate of buffalo and puttu, and Laurel, Stanley, and I walked next door to our house to feed the boys. A few hours later, Stanley rang the doorbell with a plate of tapioca and buffalo. It was like bovine crack. Must..... stop.... eating....

I fully expect to see a Burger King outlet on my next visit. They already have Domino's Pizza...

1 comment:

Jenny said...

All i can say is wow.. wish i could be there!
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