(This essay on meat was written for Seminar’s Culinary Crossings issue–some lovely pieces in there.)
Here is a partial list of animals I have eaten over the last three decades.
Goat (legs, stomach, brain, sweetbreads, kidney, liver, yes; eyes and head, never); cow (usually in the form of steaks, but also the tail in soups, the tongue, the parts inside—liver, kidneys, even heart, brain, intestines, but of the head only a small portion of a calf’s head, to be sociable), the feet in a glutinous soup somewhat like nihari; pig (the legs, roasted, the cheeks, the flesh in diverse forms, from pork chops to sausages, the blood in black pudding, the stomach and several organs in the form of haggis, the liver, deliciously, in a sorpotel); rabbit, twice or thrice, liking and repelled by its strong tang and dark, earthy taste; snake, if I am to believe the lady who fed me this rich, musty stew at a street stall in Kuala Lumpur, but I fear she was lying and it was only, after all, chicken; deer, presumably an illegally hunted specimen, in my youth at the home of a friend whose family was gun-happy and uncaring of the country’s laws; ants, in a spicy, fiery chutney, crickets, fried. This list is heavy on feet, innards and offal, but low on eyeballs and faces.
Fish (the back, the stomach, the tail, always when available, caviare or humble but equally welcome fish roe, and in loyalty to my Bengali heritage, if reluctantly, the head, often—all of it, in fact); prawns, oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, with and without the shells, always with relish; baby jellyfish, sea urchins and the like, on occasion, but never sea horse. I don’t know if anyone actually eats sea horses; dried sea horse is used in some alternative medicine therapies, but I found no recipes for sea horse entrees on the Net. Snails, which should show up once in the meat section for their slight resemblance to marrow and once here for the oysterish texture, I’ve eaten whenever I can get them, their taste enhanced by those tiny, doll’s house forks you use to extract the flesh.
Chickens, entire, and severally: the feet in Malaysian and Chinese soup, the beak, once and never again, the comb of a rooster, once and ditto, the breast and legs and wings, too often to count; ostrich, as steaks, three or four times, as eggs, three or four times; duck, often, in tired orange sauce and equally tired Peking duck pancake specials, once, memorably, after a shoot, in curries and sandwiches, the taste of it robust, gamey, but marred by the memory of the dying light in the shot bird’s eyes; goose and turkey at Calcutta Christmases, often but not of late, once in Canada, once in the US; pheasant, once, an unpleasant experience for an Indian unused to the practice of hanging meat until it turns ripe, gamey, rotted to our senses; partridge, several times; tiny birds whose name I have forgotten but that were served whole on toast—it would be nice to speculate that these were ortolans, but they were probably just snipe; quail, often, despite those fidgety bones; frogs, legs of (I suppose these belong with the fish, but everyone insists that frogs’ legs taste of chicken, so they’re here), a few times, without either pleasure or repulsion.
Here is a partial list of animals I have never eaten and that I would be reluctant to taste: dogs (especially puppies), horses, cats (especially kittens), guinea pigs, budgerigars, humans (perhaps one might make an exception for babies, the kind that cry at high volume), monkeys, chimpanzees, apes and orangutans, elephants, owls, nightingales, whales and dolphins, ibexes, penguins (and especially puffins, with their comically sweet faces), lizards, from the ordinary house-and-garden variety to iguanas and monitor lizards, (though crocodile steak I might eat) white mice, vultures, hoopoes, ocelots, lynxes, foxes and wolves, albatrosses, jaguars, panthers, tigers (and cubs), lions, sharks, duck-billed platypuses, kingfishers, hummingbirds and sparrows.
These lists. How arbitrary they are, how illogical in their implicit acceptance of what I will allow into my body and what I will forbid.
* * *
For 31 of my 34 years, I have been the perfect omnivore, the harassed hostess’s best friend—I will eat anything. (Almost anything—see lists—but then, very few Indians serve hummingbird, orangutans, puffins or iguanas to their guests; I have seldom been tested on my taboos.) My strongest dislikes are vegetable, not animal—stewed tomatoes, waterlogged bhindi, frozen American corn—and these were relatively few.
Of all the members of the animal kingdom, it was the mosquito that did me in. Like many Indians, and like the stereotypical army colonels of the British Raj, I have an admirable malarial tendency—the year I turned 31, I had my 30th bout of malaria, a source of perverse pride for me. I emerged from episode number 30 in the longrunning Malaria and Me soap opera, thinner, marginally more prone to the very Victorian complaint of fatigue—and with a changed palate.
It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t stomach meat any more. For the sake of my family, emphatically carnivorous, I hid this bizarre side-effect, politely attempting to eat the fried chicken, the mutton curries, the lightly steamed fish in mustard, the robust home-made kababs that were staples of my mother’s table. For the sake of my husband and a host of cheerfully flesh-eating friends, I continued to cook meat and fish long after both had turned to ashes on my palate. I went to great lengths to conceal this inadvertent vegetarianism at first, and I waited, patiently, for my palate to cease its apostasy. I found I could eat a little bit of flesh—fish, fowl, animal—through an effort of will, though I would throw up afterwards; for some reason, my appetite for prawns remained unaffected.
India is an easy country for a vegetarian. The European or American table holds meat in pride of place, vegetables as adjuncts, and it shows in the number of meat substitutes available for vegetarians—poor imitations made in soy protein or wheat gluten. The Far Eastern table gives fruits and vegetables the respect they deserve, but is unconcerned with vegan purity. Fish sauce will lace Thai meals, Japanese “vegetable” dishes will often contain a smidgeon of pork or fish for flavouring, the light stocks that Chinese vegetables are often simmered in are usually prepared from fish or meat bases. Here, we place rice and dal, or rotis and dal, at the heart of the meal. Even the classic Bengali non-vegetarian feast will have a strong line-up of vegetable fries and mashes, vegetable stews, vegetable chutneys. To stay away from meat is easy in the practical sense—it’s only on the social front that drifting towards meatlessness creates problems.
So, I became an equal opportunity offender.
My carnivore friends saw the shift towards meatlessness as apostasy, even betrayal; many of them mentioned one of the world’s most prominent vegetarians, A Hitler, as the classic counter-example to that other prominent vegetarian, M Gandhi. The good or evil that men do may be interred with their bones, they implied, but it certainly wasn’t to be inferred in the flesh they abstained from.
Carnivores attempted cunningly to turn me back to the path of flesh, offering Lucknow’s tundey kababs, tender cuts of lamb cooked Chettinad style, fragrant biryanis richly layered with beef, pabda maach cooked with whole black cumin, Goan pomfret fried in aromatic spice pastes—in extremis, they would smuggle homemade chicken stock into the daal and declare an underhanded victory.
Vegetarians were annoyed by me, as true believers are by the half-hearted convert. Some were tolerant; they saw dietary preferences as a private, very personal choice, and if they disapproved of what was on your plate, that disapproval rarely took the form of interference, or moral judgement. Others had arrived at intolerance after years of fighting for animal rights or having to defend their own dislike of meat, which didn’t make their righteousness any more palatable.
In the first few months of turning away from meat, I faced a battery of Purity Tests. So I didn’t eat meat? How about eggs, cheese, milk? (Eggs and milk I can take or leave, but anyone who takes my Gorgonzola or Reblochon away from me will die, I promise.) Did I understand that prawns suffer (yes, but I don’t like prawns as creatures, so I don’t care), that fish die in agonies (yes, and I like fish as creatures, so I do care), do I wear fur (no), silk (yes), use leather (if I can’t find another option), use products that weren’t tested on animals (as far as possible, no), campaign against slaughterhouses (no), support chicken battery farming (no), use insecticide (yes, though it’s a homemade herbal concoction)?
I accepted my own inconsistencies, and found them mildly fascinating, as fascinating as the question of what dead flesh I would eat and what I would eschew. But after a while, every passionate vegetarian argument, every finetuned query, began to sound like the tired chorus of a worn-out song: Was I pure enough, good enough, clean enough? Was I pure or tainted, righteous or sainted? Was I slightly pure, mostly pure, potentially pure?
Malaria had made me a reluctant semi-herbivore; a bone-headed stubbornness now made me a reluctant semi-carnivore. Over the months, what had started as a disease of the palate, an inexplicable turning away from flesh, mellowed into the realization that given a choice, I preferred fruit and vegetables, the nectarine over the neck of lamb, the cauliflower-and-turnip pickle over the calf’s-feet-jelly, even, heresy of heresies, tofu over trout. Even so, I ate just enough meat—a kabab a month, a bit of maacher jhol every two months, a bite of sausage at six month intervals—to permanently disqualify me from the ranks of the pure-in-spirit vegetarian. It was childish, and from a personal point of view, distasteful: much as I missed the memory of enjoying meat, when it was present in the flesh, my stomach, my tongue, my gustatory soul rebelled.
I follow and often endorse the moral argument for not eating meat—what cow, or goat, or chicken, or flapping, oxygen-starved fish, comes willingly to the butcher’s knife, and what right do we have to take another creature’s life to satisfy our own appetites? But this, on its own, would not stop me from eating meat—when it’s been a contest between my conscience and my palate, the palate has won, every time. I understand the ecological arguments—the grain and grass it takes to feed sheep, cows and goats would feed far more people if we were all vegetarian. But that would not stop me, either. Most of us who eat meat do so for the simplest of reasons: we like the way it tastes. My body gave up on flesh, not my heart, mind or memory. Unlike Gandhi, I sensed no goats bleating in my stomach, pleading to be restored to life.
What do you do when the rebellion against flesh comes from deep within your own flesh? To have this choice at all is a luxury in India, where so many people live on the edge of starvation, where a single green chilli can be the highlight of a meal. I have always had this choice, though, and all I can do is examine its implications.
My inheritance was the secular kitchen, where forbidden food like pork and beef, and food off-limits to widows, such as onions, garlic and fish had equal space on the table with a yogi’s pavitra diet—honey, yogurt, bitter gourd, seasonal fruits. Given the insistent inclusiveness of this heritage, something I shared with only a thin layer of Indians, I felt that before I gave up meat entirely, or returned to its complex pleasures, I needed to look more closely at the nature of meat itself.
* * *
Smell, sound, sight: three memories
Smell. Ahmedabad, 2004:
Two years after the riots that tore Gujarat apart, I’m here to do an innocuous, tourist story on the state’s ancient and very beautiful step wells. I have not yet named my turning away from meat, merely registered it. The city is normal. The riot survivors have been tidied away, banished from memory, exiled from most of Ahmedabad’s busy, commercial streets. Navaratri is in full flow, and at night, the rhythms of the dandiya drive the city into motion.
The second morning in Ahmedabad, I’m up at dawn to see one of the oldest stepwells in the city. The bats are disturbed when I negotiate the steps downwards, and they flutter among the delicate stone carvings on walls like the black exhalations of sleepy ghosts. In the half-light of morning, this place is incredibly beautiful; I sit at the very bottom of the well for a long time, listening to the sounds of the azaan from the nearby mosque drift slowly downwards, breathing in the mossy air. And then I ask the driver whether he would take me to Gulbarga, the small, middle-class cluster of flats where Ehsan Jafri and a score of other Muslims were burnt alive or hacked to death as the riots raged across Ahmedabad.
To this day, I have no idea why I wanted to go there—I am no activist, just a book reviewer who does travel stories too, definitely not the kind of reporter who takes wars, riots, morgues and corpses in her stride. Perhaps this was just self-indulgent disaster tourism; but in a city that has embraced amnesia so effectively, I found myself wanting to pay tribute, if in the smallest of ways, to bear witness to what happened here.
Hardware shops are strung out in a line in front of the narrow alley that leads to the Gulbarga society. Many of them are open for business, and they look at me incuriously: they have seen too many riot tourists to care, there are no TV cameras accompanying us.
Gulbarga is approached through that narrow alley, boxed in by other societies and flats on three sides. There are no birds, no cats, no stray dogs, no humans here. The houses are small but must once have been cheerful; they were painted in different colours, lilac, apple green, bright blue.
The ground beneath my feet is spongy, and black, and still littered with glass, with shards of pottery from ceramic planters, with splinters of wood from cane chairs, fragments of paper from schoolbooks and magazines, with shreds of fabric. If there are other, more human remains here, they are not visible: if there was blood or bone or hair, it has been removed, or it’s hidden under that thick sticky coat of black, kerosene-soaked mud that I will later track into the halls of the heritage hotel where I’m staying.
It would be so easy to say that Gulbarga stinks of death, and pain, and fear. The windows of most of these homes are smashed; a broken swing hangs suspended from a chain outdoors and a black stain, denser than the rest of the tarry mud, spreads out under it. The people who lived here had no way out once the mobs came; nowhere to find shelter except in these fragile houses, and they were dragged out of there and set on fire, or beaten to pulp, some had their limbs hacked off their torsos before they died, some were burned alive, and none of that shows in the remains of Gulbarga.
The truth is that it does not smell of terror at all or of sadness. It smells of a havan; the scorched patches of oil-soaked earth are familiar to anyone who has attended that ancient Hindu rite of prayer and fire. It smells of the crematorium, yes, but it also smells the way a barbecue at a party smells the next day, ashes and the departed ghost scents of roast meat.
It is very silent here, so silent that I am first irritated when a gasping, snorting sound breaks the unnatural peace of the colony. And then I turn to see my taxi driver, the young Hindu boy who told me yesterday how the “Mohammedans” were ruining the city, is in tears, he can’t hold back his sobs, he crumbles handfuls of black, greasy earth between his fingers and he cries like a child, in great gasps. There is nothing to say; I sit there, looking at the dark brown fingers of soot on a pale pink kitchen wall, looking at the money plant still growing in a shattered Jaipur pottery planter, looking at the exercise book where there is nothing written after the words ‘A Picnic’.
Ahmedabad has incredibly delicate vegetarian food, and for the next few days, I try all the local specialties, from undhyo to patra to dapka kadhi, and behind every thali I can smell the charred, oil-soaked earth stink of Gulbarga. Then one day, several months later, I wake up to an absence, a smell that is no longer there. Gulbarga has left my olfactory memory, and will not return until I write these paragraphs, this sentence.
Sound. Kumaon Hills, 1998.
We arrive at the army cantonment up in the Kumaon Hills after a long drive, touted as a Himalayan Rally, through some of the loveliest landscapes in India. It is Durga Puja, and I have been silently missing the rituals, bustle and of course food, of this quintessentially Bengali festival. “We have arranged something special for you,” says the Colonel to our tired troupe. “A proper regimental puja.”
We shower with lukewarm, slightly muddy water; the women officers and I change into saris, salwar kameezes, the men into clean shirts, pressed trousers. Far off, a goat bleats, then another, widening into a chorus.
The “temple” is located inside a large tent, and we watch the priest go about the arti, those tiny flickering flames and the scent of camphor bringing a small whiff of comfort to the travelworn, the road-weary. Then we’re ushered outside, into a field. It is already dark, and all the stars are out, a light breeze plays up and down the hills. Even to an agnostic like me, the evening prayers have brought peace.
One of the women, the young wife of a young Captain, stirs uneasily. She is listening to the bleating of a goat, not so far-off any more. The goat—properly a kid—trots in eagerly, escorted in by two soldiers with very young faces and very old eyes. It bleats; off in the distance, other goats answer. It is very interested in the wooden structure—two poles decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers, and it tries to eat some of the flowers, as a burly man in uniform tests the blade of a long, curving knife, crouched down beside the kid.
It is only when the soldiers pull on the rope around its thin neck and force its head down onto the crescent-shaped piece of wood connecting the two poles that the kid starts to protest. It bleats, and the answering, distant bleats are more frantic. It bleats again, and again, wriggling, kicking its legs out. The burly man stands up and swings the blade easily, testing it, splitting a green coconut in two with no effort. The kid has been subdued, but its eyes are rolling and it piddles uncontrollably; I am close enough to see the froth forming at the side of its mouth. It bleats yet again, an animal, human cry, and the bleat is cut in two, severed as swiftly as its head by the blade as the burly man, having taken his stance, brings the knife down cleanly. In the distance, the other goats bleat continuously; the kid’s head bounces twice and lies still.
The young wife of the young Captain has fainted. She is a vegetarian, and she has never seen an animal sacrifice before. She eats no meat that night, but the rest of us do. The meat is warm, tender, steaming. I eat with pleasure, and my conscience is untroubled. But many years later, when my husband and I have shifted to Nizamuddin, where goats are still bought and kept in people’s gardens and homes before the ritual sacrifice on Bakrid, I hear the happy bleats of the goats, especially the young ones, and I think of the goat we met that night in Kumaon.
Sight: INA market, Old Delhi meat market, Sarojini Nagar Market, 2006:
I know these markets, I know the butcher’s shops, I have been coming to these blood-steeped alleys from the age of five, or six, accompanying my mother or my grandfather on ritual shopping expeditions. But one of the first lessons you learn as a flesh-eater who also buys and cooks meat is the art of selective vision.
We do not live at a distance from our meat, as you might in other countries; a few malls and supermarkets now offer neatly packaged frozen or fresh cuts, meal-sized portions that have none of the slaughterhouse feel about them, but this is still relatively uncommon. Most of us buy meat and fish in the flesh, up close near the blood and guts.
You learn very quickly not to look too closely at certain things. The gutters, running with blood, feathers, scraps of flesh, wattles and combs, fish scales, the plucked whiskers of prawns. The bucket of guts, gills and intestines at the fishmonger’s, the bucket of skin, feathers and innards at the chicken shop. You learn to look for certain things; redness in some cuts of meat, shading to voluptuous dark maroon in other cuts from other animals. You look for bright red gills and a firm skin in fish, but you ignore the occasionally flapping lips of a fish so fresh it still misses the water. You look for greyness in shellfish, which is bad; but in some specimens, an oceanic greeny-greyness indicates flavour. You look carefully at the leg of goat or lamb the butcher slaps down on his block, to check that the flesh is firm; you look closely at liver and kidneys, rejecting wrinkled and deformed organs; but it would be a mistake to look too closely at the butcher’s block, where years of hacking and chopping have blended the grain of the meat so thoroughly with the grain of the wood that the surface mixes animal, vegetable and mineral in one inextricable mass.
The meat market in Old Delhi is the wholesale market, and it has no time for niceties; the meat arrives often on the hoof, and while it isn’t slaughtered on the premises, it can come in so fresh that warm steam from the blood that poured out of the carcass still rises from the flanks, the legs, the chest of the dismembered animal. Three boys, apprentice butchers, squat and chat as they casually stick their hands up the rectums of goats and flick out the shit. Great masses of flies rise and settle, rise and settle, first on the blood of the carcass, then on the gleaming piles of black goat pellets. One of the alleyways is given over to heads—sheeps and goats, chiefly, some with their tongues neatly severed and tucked into the gaping mouths, and eyeballs lightly loosened from the socket. The morning I go, there are no horse’s heads on sale, though the butchers confirm that a few occasionally can be found—they are uncomfortable discussing who might buy a horse’s head, and what finished dish might be made from it, and they say it is not a frequently sought after item. It is, however, remarkably cheap.
I hope that if I look long enough at these corpses, the transformation of the living into the dead into dinner, I might experience a life-changing revulsion, be free of my ambiguity about meat and flesh, blood and bone, my reluctance to commit to one or another side of the vegetarian debate. A revelation would be wonderful, but even revulsion would be useful in this personal exploration of the sins of the flesh.
And so I look. At INA market, I notice for the first time how neatly the haunches of goat hang from the shop lintels, how cleanly the inverted hooks pass through the tendons, just above the trotters, how carefully the liver, sweetbreads, heart and kidneys of each animal has been inserted into the half-carcass so that you can inspect it for health, for the consistency and clarity of the fat, before you buy.
I notice how the fishmonger reserves his respect for the pickiest customers, the ones who understand that the best fish was breathing up to a minute ago, who will buy the small, unregarded, tasty fish with those deadly, hair-thin bones. If you lift the gills of carp at the right angle, you might spark an involuntary exhalation, a final, if illusory, sigh.
No fashion designer has yet claimed inspiration from the meat markets, but no fashion designer could improve on the beauty of the colour scheme—the gunmetal, silver gleam of fish brought into shining relief by the vivid reds, maroons and scarlet of blood and guts.
And I notice—have I been blind all my life?—how the worst position of all, if you’re a chicken destined for the table, is to be in the third row, the fourth or the fifth row, the bottom rows of the coop. The ones in the first row have just as little space, but their feathers are white shading to cream. They shit on the chickens below and the chickens below shit on the chickens underneath and in the constant jostling of chickens for living space, every now and then the dried shit on the feathers of the chickens above cascades down like dirty whitewash onto the chickens on the lower rungs.
I see all this, and my mind makes the automatic transition of all cooks everywhere in the world: I think of earthy dak bungalow curries and the aroma of chicken country captain, of chicken breasts tenderly braised with mushrooms, of spicy mutton curries fiery with red chillies, spiked with malt vinegar, of subtle fish coconut curries, of crisp-fried fish fillets with shallot. This is a strictly fleshly pleasure, the knowledge that you can take the stink and the mess of the marketplace and transform that into food that will fill the belly and make the soul hum with happiness.
One of the coops is placed on a bench; at the same level, there’s a tray of chicken feet. The butcher’s assistant adds two more feet to the tray from a freshly slaughtered bird; as he turns back, he jostles the tray a bit, bumping it closer to the coop. On the second level, getting shat on, but not so badly off as its counterparts on level three, a bird pokes its beak through the wires and discovers that it can peck at the chicken feet. It is a briefly disorienting sight, it looks like a Disney cartoon gone noir, as though the chicken is snacking on its own dismembered claws.
I have to step aside because a fresh bunch of goat carcasses is coming in; I watch as the butcher slams each haunch onto those hooks, and I wonder whether I would feel more horror if, say, those were skinned puppies being prepared for display, upside-down babies being skewered through their delicate, tiny feet. Perhaps, but what if I lived in a society where it was the custom to eat every third baby, to usefully dispose of the puppies in every litter that couldn’t be adopted? Revulsion wears off very, very quickly, as anyone who spends time in a meat market will know—it’s a question of what you’re used to.
I buy meat that I will cook, but not eat, making me an accessory to the crime in the eyes of all those good people who believe for very valid reasons that meat is murder. I could stop eating meat for the rest of my life, starting today, and still not atone for the sins committed during half a lifetime of meat-eating; I could be a vegetarian and still visit terrible harm on other people.
I have come to no useful conclusion about flesh; I know its pleasures, even if I increasingly abjure them. I know the vulnerability of the flesh, how easily it is penetrated by knife, skewer, fork. I know how close that dividing line is, between living and dead. I know that this ambiguity about flesh cuts deep and cuts close, too close to the bone.