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A Burger Boom in the Land of the Sacred Cow

What happens when the world’s largest “vegetarian” society discovers its taste for meat?

From upscale burger joints to fast-food chains, meat is becoming increasingly available in Indian cities. Photo credit: Jennifer Kumar via Flickr

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It was a typical roadside food stand that led Siddharth Jain to walk away from centuries of family tradition. As a devotee of Jainism, he spent the first 19 years of his life as a vegetarian, practicing one of the religion’s core tenets: ahimsa, the concept of non-violence toward all living things. Not only do followers not eat meat or eggs, they refuse to disturb the growth of vegetables with roots, like garlic, potatoes or onions. Jain ascetics even sweep the ground in front of them as they walk to move bugs and other tiny creatures safely out of their paths.

For Siddharth Jain – whose family’s religious devotion runs so deep their own surname echoes it – misgivings about his faith began to emerge when he left home for the first time. At a college just outside of Mumbai, he began wrestling with questions of identity and eventually chanced upon a book that would forever change him: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. “It really forced me to have a stand on this matter, to not take these questions lightly. It helped me to crystallize answers to many questions in my mind.” The book inspired a religious epiphany: he no longer believed.

That year, Jain took the life-altering step to become an atheist, and a few months later he pulled up to his favorite food stand and did something he had never done before: ordered a hot, juicy plate of tandoori chicken. “It was love at first sight and remains my favorite dish to this day,” says Jain. After nearly a decade of consuming poultry, fish and even beef, there is almost nothing he won’t eat.

In India, religion is deeply ingrained in the social fabric. In a city like Mumbai, which has experienced large-scale migration, tightly knit communities are based more on caste and religion than class – and so, too, are eating habits. Some cooperative housing societies unofficially only admit those of the same faith, and if mixing happens, buildings sometimes divide along a strict vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide.

But as Mumbai and other Indian cities become more cosmopolitan, perceptions and relationships are changing – and old habits are breaking fast. While denouncing religion is not commonplace in India, more and more urban Indians, young and old, are abandoning dietary restrictions related to religious observances. Like Jains, many Hindus refrain from eating meat, especially cow, since the animal is considered sacred. Muslims do not eat pork, which they consider unclean, and many Indians abstain from eating meat on certain days of the week to show devotion to particular gods. Yet the changing value system among a rising middle class with more disposable income, greater exposure from travel abroad and the internet, and a growing restaurant scene that is opening up opportunities for experimentation has put even taboo entrees such as hamburgers on menus across India’s cities.

The Myth of a Vegetarian India

Vegetarianism has become so associated with the Indian way of life that guidebooks often depict the societal tradition through colorful pictures of sacred cows wandering freely through busy city streets. India, in fact, does have an long history of abstaining from eating meat, but references to meat-eating date back to ancient texts. For Hindus, however, the cow remains off limits. Cows were thought to supply the basic needs of families, including dairy products for all-important protein and dung for fuel and home construction. Their identity as benevolent maternal caretakers became so fundamental that cows became linked with religion.

While India is still considered to be the largest vegetarian population in the world, a 2006 study conducted by the Hindu newspaper found that today, 60 percent of the country eats meat, and the numbers are growing. Not only are more Indians eschewing generations of vegetarianism, those that eat meat are eating it more frequently. What was once prepared as a weekly treat is now a staple. The most recent figures on meat consumption in India by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show consumption has hit an all-time high. The 2007 figures put the country’s per capita meat intake between 11 and 12 pounds annually. That’s dwarfed by meat consumption in the U.S. – the average American eats 185 pounds of meat each year – but it’s the highest amount in India since the organization began tracking. The intermingling amongst castes, classes and religions is exposing urbanites to more options and tantalizing them with hitherto forbidden foods.

A cow wanders a busy street in Mumbai. Photo credit: Amy Thibodeau via Flickr

Eating has always been an important part of Indian culture. Ancient medicinal practices such as ayurveda base wellness off a diet that balances one’s constitution, or dosha. A fire-based constitution like pitta, for example, would be prescribed cooling foods. Movies such as The Mistress of Spices espouse the mystique of the Indian kitchen where slow-cooked, aromatic dishes simmer with a bouquet of exotic flavors.

Yet as more women enter the workforce and city life becomes more frenetic, home-cooked meals are increasingly becoming a burden. Mumbaikers, for example, spend over an hour-and-a-half each day on a roundtrip commute – the highest in the country and double what the average American spends. As happened in the U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s when both spouses began working outside the house and sprawling suburbs meant long rides to and from work, fast food filled the time gap. After India’s market liberalized in the early 1990s, international fast-food chains slowly began moving in. When KFC, like many early-entry fast food joints in India, launched in 1995 in Bangalore, few people knew what to make of it. Harneet Rajpal, vice-president for marketing of Domino’s Pizza India, said their biggest challenge was educating consumers who had never seen pizza before.

Today, KFC is set to triple the number of its outlets, and Burger King has partnered with private equity firm Everstone Capital, which plans to invest $100 million to set up 500 locations across India over the next decade At the same time, more upscale enterprises, like Los Angeles-based Counter Burger, hope to make waves with India’s 250-million strong (and growing) middle-class market.

The quick-service restaurants have not only introduced new foods to urban Indians, they’ve also launched a revolution in dining out, which traditionally was reserved for special occasions. Today, the movement has grown into an explosion of up-market, fine-dining and artisanal food offerings where meat of every kind is prepared with care and delicacy.

“There is a mindset change. People are going abroad, where it’s okay to have beef and pork,” says Parag Joglekar, head chef at The Barking Deer restaurant (and microbrewery – the first in the city), a massive meat-lover’s paradise in a former mill district that has abandoned its looms for malls with Gucci, TGIFridays and a growing international restaurant scene.

Joglekar, himself a meat-eating Brahmin – the highest in the caste system who still, according to the Hindu‘s 2006 survey, have some of the highest rates of strict vegetarianism in the country – worked in the U.S. during the 1990s and returned to a different India. When he came back, he saw the eating habits had changed, and his clientele was more educated about food. They had traveled and were exposed to Western culinary traditions. “They no longer wanted just subzi and roti,” says Joglekar of the simple vegetable and bread meal common in Indian homes. “They not only wanted particular cuts of meat, but now they also knew if they wanted it grilled or roasted. They were demanding European spices, such as tarragon, which would have simply been unheard of before.”

Joglekar estimates that 10 years ago, the number of restaurants that carried beef and pork was half what it is today. “People expect beef and pork on a fine-dining menu. Before, only about two out of 10 restaurants would have it. Today, it’s everywhere.”

Chef Parag Joglekar and Greg Kroitzsh, proprietor of The Barking Deer. Photo credit: The Barking Deer

The Barking Deer serves unabashedly protein-rich American cuisine. On a recent Saturday, delicately stacked hamburger sliders were prepared alongside a minced-meat shepherd’s pie. A token Indian curry was added to the menu, says Joglekar, to capture the more traditional visitor who may be part of a larger corporate group. But Joglekar, along with American owner Greg Kroitzsh, is not interested in catering to these traditions. They are confident that today’s urban Indian is interested in paying a premium for a unique experience, where craft brew made on site is paired alongside robust beef cuts. “Indians feel like they are getting an authentic experience, and they’re looking for that,” says Kroitzsh. Indeed, what was once a novelty dining experience, a kind of recreated foreign setting, is quickly become authentically Indian.

The drive toward artisanal food is being fueled by more and more exposure to new cuisines. Television shows like MasterChef Australia, which was a huge hit in India, educated Indians on the difference between flambé and fillet. Middle-class urbanites curious to test the cuisines themselves have taken to the air to check it out firsthand. Greater affordability to travel abroad combined with bigger paychecks has fueled international tourism. A recent Deloitte study on the hospitality industry says India is expected to have 50 million outbound tourists by the end of the decade.

Sruthi Sunderraman is one of those people who was brought up in a “hard core” South Indian Brahmin household who was changed abroad. On a trip to Thailand with friends, she searched menus for vegetarian options. Brought up in a joint family, often considered more strict and traditional since grandparents seek to pass down values and rituals, Sunderraman stayed true to her upbringing – until Bangkok. Unable to interpret the menus in Thai, she chanced her luck and pointed to a dish she recognized: tofu and vegetables. The entree was so delicious, she decided to compliment the chef on his ability to work with the spongy protein. It turned out to be jellyfish. She ordered a second, and hasn’t turned back since.

While her native village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu still abides by the dietary restrictions imposed upon her upper-caste community, Sunderraman says the city is very accommodating. As a freelance photojournalist and artist, she runs in a circle of friends from all different parts of the country and from a variety of religious beliefs. This exposure and openness has been a large part of her changing value system and, given how important food is to this culture, her evolving self-identity. In Mumbai, “you can be anything and everything you want to be, and people are very accepting.”

Although the city is quite liberal to new traditions, many households are not. Both Sunderraman and Jain live a double life of sorts. Their meat-eating secret is safe in the anonymity of Mumbai’s busy streets, but at home the subject is taboo, especially with extended family. Yet as joint families become fewer, urban nuclear families with the money to spend on their own apartments break free from the watchful eye of traditional elders and create their own belief systems.

Jain believes religious rules will need to relax for the next generation. “Religion is biased against too many things. It dictates too many things. People should have a choice. I value when my friends become vegetarian for ethical purposes, out of respect for animals, but I don’t understand why you can eat one kind of meat but not another.” Sunderraman says she still often prefers vegetarian food because it is “lighter and healthier,” but she spends a lot of her time dreaming of one of her biggest indulgences, a burger topped with bacon.

Sunderraman’s dream burger would have been unheard of a few years ago, even in a rapidly expanding megapolis like Mumbai. Today, the scene has changed so dramatically that groups have formed, such as the Mumbai Meat Marathon, to bond over their love of romping through the city in search of the most succulent cuts. Mumbai-based food and wine writer Antoine Lewis says what is new is that they are not just frying up frozen burgers, but a new wave of experienced chefs, many of whom were trained abroad, are concentrating on the best breads and cheeses to go with freshly prepared meat, often imported. Last month, he wrote an article for Vogue, “Posh Goes the Burger,” which captures the movement not just of burger eating in the city but toward an ever-educated, ever-demanding consumer looking for gourmet.

Politics of Beef

Burgers may be gaining ground in India, but they have yet to transcend the final taboo – to this day, the slaughtering of cows is illegal in most Indian states, so beef in India comes from buffalo. In the Hindu tradition, eating any beef at all – cow, buffalo, or otherwise – is forbidden, and though there is thought to be an illegal cow trade that continues to exist in India, the law forbids any restaurant, whether it be a posh Mumbai burger joint or a Burger King fast-food outlet, from serving its customers cow. (A few states are exempt from this law, such as the predominantly Christian state of Kerala).

But even this prohibition is being challenged. The ban against cow beef in a secular country is increasingly becoming a politicized issue, where in a pluralistic nation of many religions and beliefs, not all hold the cow as sacred. Muslims and Christians, for example, eat beef regularly.

Food is an important part of Indian culture. As social traditions change and the middle class grows, eating norms are transforming, too. Photo credit: Tiberiu Ana via Flickr

The controversy has played out in court in the state of Karnataka, whose capital city of Bangalore has been one of the more open places when it comes to beef-eating. Karnataka’s Supreme Court has been investigating the long tradition of banning the sale of meat on certain festival days. “Imposing a total ban of meat sale on all communities/religions is nothing but curtailing fundamental rights by way of unreasonable restrictions,” the Times of India recently opined. “The preamble of our Constitution provides for a secular state and, therefore, the state is duty-bound to protect and uphold the ideals of the Constitution.’‘

It’s an election year in India, and the lead opposition party candidate, Narendra Modi, has been under fire for his Hindu-leaning politics, stoking fears of a deeper Hindu-Muslim divide should he become prime minister. Modi hails from the vegetarian state of Gujarat, where even alcohol is banned. His campaign has played to the Hindu majority by reinforcing his state’s care for the cow. Gujarat has been promoting itself as a sanctuary for the revered animal, where orthopedic care and cataract surgery will ease the aging process of the roaming cattle. As the world’s largest democracy heads to the polls this month, the role of cow politics is likely to be dwarfed by major economic and development issues. While young urban Indians are testing out change, many are still drawn to Modi despite his hard-line stance against meat-eating and all it represents. Like India’s cities, these youth hover on the edge of tradition and change. The move toward eating meat represents a step in an evolving value system being questioned and tested as India’s cities globalize. The implications stretch beyond the dinner table, and this election season will reveal just how far Indians want to reach – and what they are willing to sacrifice – for a new direction.

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change.

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