Joseph and Monica were in for a surprise when they dropped in at Sneha, a small Malayali restaurant in Mumbai’s Mahim Causeway, recently. They had attended Wednesday mass at St Michael’s Church and then headed to Sneha, as they had done every Wednesday for the last 20 years, for their favourite beef fry — only to find no sign of it. The folks at Sneha had taken beef off the menu, after the President gave his assent to ban cow slaughter in Maharashtra. Ironically, Sneha had just won the ‘tastiest beef dish in Asia’ award in the Chowzter Asia 2015 Awards. Sneha was not alone, as beef started going off the menus of restaurants across Mumbai.
Truth be told, cow slaughter has always been banned in many parts of the country, so what you received as beef was primarily buffalo or bullock meat. Unlike in the West, these had not been reared for consumption. Indian beef, unlike Japanese Wagyu and Kobe or Aussie Angus, did not come from pampered, happy cows. A few high-end restaurants would import beef, but they would be frozen blocks of meat. The steaks made from them would be served well done, to the point of being chewy, in order to disguise the poor quality of meat. What is interesting is the range of brilliant cooking techniques that came about across India to deal with the indifferent quality of beef.
The dish in question at Sneha was a beautifully slow-cooked beef fry, rendered into tender succulence after an hour of cooking, with a medley of spices, caramelised onions, green chillies, mustard seeds and curry leaves. The slow cooking process at Sneha was typical of the best beef preparations across India — this has never been the country to look for a medium-rare steak, after all.
Apart from the beef fry at Sneha, you had the poetic renditions of barahandi cooking, available in Mumbai’s BohriMohalla. This cooking tradition, which originated in Iran and came to Mumbai via Gujarat, is on its last legs, with VallibhaiPayawallah shutting down recently. At Vallibhai’s, cuts of beef, (including usually discarded bits such as ox’s tail, rump and hump) were slow-cooked over six hours to a fantastically silky finish. These were mixed with delicious wheat- and lentil-based broths cooked in 12 vessels (barahandi) to offer one of the most heady experiences to be had for meat lovers in Mumbai. Vallibhai’s premises were sold for redevelopment — just in time for the beef ban, some might wryly say. Surti’sbarahandi still remains, although beef is off the menu.
Just down the lane from Vallibhai was Haji Tikka Bar-B-Q Corner, where you would get twice-cooked, scrumptious khiri (cow’s udder) kebabs fresh off the coal skewers. These, too, have disappeared, as has the delicious, deep-fried, cheap and popular steak and onion fry at New Martin Hotel, the small Goan restaurant in Colaba.
In Kolkata, where cow slaughter is still legal, most restaurants have taken beef off their menus over the years. The two remaining classic beef dishes that most locals swear by are the beef kebab rolls at Nizam’s, in New Market, and the well-done beef steaks at Park Street’s Olypub. The latter is a bit of a rite-of-passage for college goers in Kolkata. No trip to Lucknow is complete without a trip to Tunday for kebabs. The more atmospheric Tunday outlet at Chowk serves only beef kebabs and parathas. The secret marination process, which involves papaya juice, results in kebabs which are near pâté-like in tenderness.
Then, there are Moinuddin’s delightfully juicy beef kebabs, sold on the pavements of Old Delhi, as well as Pehelwan’s biryani, which he dishes out from a deg (vessel) on the street. The beef in the biryani is pleasantly mellow in texture. Add to these legends the tenderloin phaal at Imran’s stall in Bengaluru’s Shivaji Nagar and the roast ox tongue in Goa’s Infantaria, and you will realise that India has a rich tradition of beef cooking — and I have just scratched the surface of it so far. It would be truly sad if future generations can only listen to the tales of this culinary wizardry and not be able to experience it first-hand.