Animal lover


Animal lover

Vilified, denounced and a dietary source of shame, red meat needs a champion

By Purva Mehra  March 3rd, 2015

My friends and I have had a long-standing tradition of making New Year resolutions together. Cold-pressed juicing, raw-food bingeing, gluten-shirking and veganism — all of which I broadly categorise under culinary pleasure-purging — emerged as the popular suggestions this year. Under the sway of the new crop of yoga instructors and nutritionists, one half of my group has given up pastry, while the other half has substituted dairy and meat with miso and tofu. Me? I declined to sign up for a year of being miserable.

It is a form of masochism to renounce the very foods you love. In defiance, I’ve committed myself to eating as many steaks, sausages, ribs, roasts, cheeseburgers, kheema and kaleji as I can. But this is not merely an act of rebellion. In truth, I’m over two decades behind on my consumption of adult mammals. As a thoroughbred Punjabi, my exploration of meat stopped at chicken (biryani days were lamentably few in my house so I can’t say I’ve eaten too much lamb either). Butter chicken, tandoori chicken and chicken biryani constituted my holy trinity of foods until the summer of 2010, when the culinary gods intervened. 

My friends and I were hopelessly lost and terribly hungry during a road trip through the Costa Brava. Few restaurants populate the sparkling Spanish coast and the ones that do, tend to have one-or-two item menus. By an act of providence, we stumbled upon a village café that only served jamon and melons, and not one without the other. To my chicken adoring palate, the pink, fat-streaked slivers of Spanish ham were a revelation. It gave me a head rush, the sort you experience after a first successful attempt at a headstand or smoking contraband goods. The ham was fleeting, but its sweet, earthy memory is still vivid in my mind. A few days into the same holiday, I tackled my first steak. On a crisp evening in a town square café in the historic town of Granada, I ravaged with surprising ease, a juicy slab of perfectly grilled moo, blanketed in a velvety Merlot sauce. My pupils dilated and heart raced as I delved into the blushing pink core of the pliant two-inch-thick hunk of meat. I emerged at the end of that meal, a born–again carnivore.

My mother, who turned vegetarian for health reasons almost 20 years ago, didn’t take kindly to the title, nor to my new obsession. She repeatedly warned me that I’d pay for the “sinning” with my health. It’s true; an excess of cheeseburgers will not prolong my life, but that’s a risk us gastronomic hedonists take. As a final attempt to recruit me to vegetarianism, she resorted to the morality argument. 

She urged me to witness first–hand the “barbarism” at a butcher’s. I’ll admit that the local pork house in Bandra wasn’t a pretty sight. Blood, guts and cats were everywhere, but unsettlingly, I found myself concerned only that the felines were getting to the desirable parts of the piggy before me. I’m not entirely immune to the dilemma of “murdering sentient beings”, as mom indelicately put it. So to somewhat absolve myself of this, I try and seek ethically raised (that is sustainably bred on well-managed pasture systems) meats in countries that offer such a choice.

My five-year journey as a raging carnivore has thus been one of tremendous self-discovery. I can tell you, for instance, that my love can be bought with a good steak. By good I mean sufficiently marbled and expertly grilled. Last year, I also went on a series of revelatory steak dates; on such evenings, I took charge of the ordering. The steak had to be medium rare with a minimal garnish of salt, pepper and butter for good measure, so that the bloody flavour remained intact. As a rule, I didn’t share. If the date called back after witnessing me demolish the hunk of meat, he was declared a keeper. 

The dissenters were far more, but also made for better stories. A particularly queamish chap excused himself to go to the men’s bathroom through the entire length of my steak, another refused to pay for my (pricier) part of the meal. A rare sport challenged me to a steak-off, and we’ve been thick friends since.

If beef is my holiday fling (since Mumbai is so tragically intolerant of it), pork is a full-time preoccupation. In 2012, I was introduced to the recurring Swine Dining dinners, set up by chef Gresham Fernandes of Salt Water Café. Every few months, he hosts a delightfully communal and entirely lavish pork feast for meat-mad consumers like me. Cheek, tongue, belly, heart, feet — Fernandes has the gift of turning almost any part of the hog into something devour-able. The meals are characterised by their leisurely pace and vibrant discussions that stay centred on pork. Not one of my quinoa, kaniwa and cabbage-soup crazed friends belongs to any such group. I’ve been around conversations between fastidious diners, and it sucks the very thrill out of eating. Food is nothing if not the stimulus for cintillating chatter and a gateway to distant worlds. But if you’re preoccupied with trivialities like calorie content around the dinner table, you’re doing it wrong.

Last month, I severed ties with an old friend, a former pork eater and relatively new vegan, who deemed these pork-centric dinners “satanic”. I suspect it’s because she desperately misses her once-favourite chorizo. She has also taken to an aggressive preaching of the vegan way of eating, more likely to convince herself that it’s torture worth abiding by. Us meat fanatics rarely preach, you see. You may well accuse us of being smug about having a more evolved palate thanks to the wider range of foods available to us, but converting others is simply not part of our agenda. The proof and pleasure, we believe, lies in the pigeon pie, the rabbit stew, the blood sausage.

Photograph: Foodandwine.com

My friends and I have had a long-standing tradition of making New Year resolutions together. Cold-pressed juicing, raw-food bingeing, gluten-shirking and veganism — all of which I broadly categorise under culinary pleasure-purging — emerged as the popular suggestions this year. Under the sway of the new crop of yoga instructors and nutritionists, one half of my group has given up pastry, while the other half has substituted dairy and meat with miso and tofu. Me? I declined to sign up for a year of being miserable.

It is a form of masochism to renounce the very foods you love. In defiance, I’ve committed myself to eating as many steaks, sausages, ribs, roasts, cheeseburgers, kheema and kaleji as I can. But this is not merely an act of rebellion. In truth, I’m over two decades behind on my consumption of adult mammals. As a thoroughbred Punjabi, my exploration of meat stopped at chicken (biryani days were lamentably few in my house so I can’t say I’ve eaten too much lamb either). Butter chicken, tandoori chicken and chicken biryani constituted my holy trinity of foods until the summer of 2010, when the culinary gods intervened. 

My friends and I were hopelessly lost and terribly hungry during a road trip through the Costa Brava. Few restaurants populate the sparkling Spanish coast and the ones that do, tend to have one-or-two item menus. By an act of providence, we stumbled upon a village café that only served jamon and melons, and not one without the other. To my chicken adoring palate, the pink, fat-streaked slivers of Spanish ham were a revelation. It gave me a head rush, the sort you experience after a first successful attempt at a headstand or smoking contraband goods. The ham was fleeting, but its sweet, earthy memory is still vivid in my mind. A few days into the same holiday, I tackled my first steak. On a crisp evening in a town square café in the historic town of Granada, I ravaged with surprising ease, a juicy slab of perfectly grilled moo, blanketed in a velvety Merlot sauce. My pupils dilated and heart raced as I delved into the blushing pink core of the pliant two-inch-thick hunk of meat. I emerged at the end of that meal, a born–again carnivore.

My mother, who turned vegetarian for health reasons almost 20 years ago, didn’t take kindly to the title, nor to my new obsession. She repeatedly warned me that I’d pay for the “sinning” with my health. It’s true; an excess of cheeseburgers will not prolong my life, but that’s a risk us gastronomic hedonists take. As a final attempt to recruit me to vegetarianism, she resorted to the morality argument. 

She urged me to witness first–hand the “barbarism” at a butcher’s. I’ll admit that the local pork house in Bandra wasn’t a pretty sight. Blood, guts and cats were everywhere, but unsettlingly, I found myself concerned only that the felines were getting to the desirable parts of the piggy before me. I’m not entirely immune to the dilemma of “murdering sentient beings”, as mom indelicately put it. So to somewhat absolve myself of this, I try and seek ethically raised (that is sustainably bred on well-managed pasture systems) meats in countries that offer such a choice.

My five-year journey as a raging carnivore has thus been one of tremendous self-discovery. I can tell you, for instance, that my love can be bought with a good steak. By good I mean sufficiently marbled and expertly grilled. Last year, I also went on a series of revelatory steak dates; on such evenings, I took charge of the ordering. The steak had to be medium rare with a minimal garnish of salt, pepper and butter for good measure, so that the bloody flavour remained intact. As a rule, I didn’t share. If the date called back after witnessing me demolish the hunk of meat, he was declared a keeper. 

The dissenters were far more, but also made for better stories. A particularly queamish chap excused himself to go to the men’s bathroom through the entire length of my steak, another refused to pay for my (pricier) part of the meal. A rare sport challenged me to a steak-off, and we’ve been thick friends since.

If beef is my holiday fling (since Mumbai is so tragically intolerant of it), pork is a full-time preoccupation. In 2012, I was introduced to the recurring Swine Dining dinners, set up by chef Gresham Fernandes of Salt Water Café. Every few months, he hosts a delightfully communal and entirely lavish pork feast for meat-mad consumers like me. Cheek, tongue, belly, heart, feet — Fernandes has the gift of turning almost any part of the hog into something devour-able. The meals are characterised by their leisurely pace and vibrant discussions that stay centred on pork. Not one of my quinoa, kaniwa and cabbage-soup crazed friends belongs to any such group. I’ve been around conversations between fastidious diners, and it sucks the very thrill out of eating. Food is nothing if not the stimulus for cintillating chatter and a gateway to distant worlds. But if you’re preoccupied with trivialities like calorie content around the dinner table, you’re doing it wrong.

Last month, I severed ties with an old friend, a former pork eater and relatively new vegan, who deemed these pork-centric dinners “satanic”. I suspect it’s because she desperately misses her once-favourite chorizo. She has also taken to an aggressive preaching of the vegan way of eating, more likely to convince herself that it’s torture worth abiding by. Us meat fanatics rarely preach, you see. You may well accuse us of being smug about having a more evolved palate thanks to the wider range of foods available to us, but converting others is simply not part of our agenda. The proof and pleasure, we believe, lies in the pigeon pie, the rabbit stew, the blood sausage.

Photograph: Foodandwine.com