Growing up in India, I saw stray cows wandering around sometimes. No, they were not everywhere,stopping traffic and all that, unlike popular belief. Cows usually like to stay out of trouble, so they don’t go wandering down a busy road if they can help it. But marketplaces are another matter altogether. Places that I, as the Minister for Tourism, would make the tourist pay good money to visit and photograph. I have seen how fascinating they are for Westerners. I have even accompanied some of them to visit an old marketplace apparently so famous that it is featured on LonelyPlanet, no less! Those days, I did not really understand what the fascination was all about. Then I left India and found myself holed up in colourless gray places, places that kind of merge into one another, uniform in their supermarket chains and first world comforts.
Now I understand the fascination of the heaps of vegetables, fruits and flowers, bright as jewels in their vibrant colours. Piled up so high that they look like little hillocks, guarded by their architects who sit in the middle, like in a valley. The men or sometimes women shout at the top of their lungs, vying for customers. Their customary zeal double at the sight of a camera-toting foreigner. The aroma of fruits and flowers mixed with rotting greenery underfoot. The chaos of people talking, gesticulating and wandering around, fingering the wares, poking a finger at the mango, smelling the fresh turmeric. Mere words cannot reproduce the atmosphere.
And then on a good day, in wanders a cow. She is regal. People tolerate her, until she starts to nibble at the lovingly arranged greens. At which point, a shout warns her that she is being a pain. So she wanders off, in search for a friendlier soul, but then finds enough detritus on the floor of the market to satisfy her. She is not bothered by you and she will not bother you if you step away from her path. Because she is not going to step around you. Never. If you understand cows, you will know that they do not walk around any human. They will proceed as they always wanted to, and it is the job of the rest of the world to make sure they don’t get hurt. So when a cow wanders down a market place, you might be surprised to see her walking down the midst of all those people, and they giving her right of way.
Then comes a bad day. You can already sense his entrance into the crowded market-place by the muffled murmur that starts at one end and reaches down to you in no time, there is a bull. There is the whiff of danger in the air, or is it the strong animal smell of the bull? You don’t know and you don’t need to find out. Dear visitor, you step away, as deftly as possible, without alarming his Highness. Because bulls can be rather unpredictable. They are usually operating on a short fuse, which means that even wandering too close to him with your camera might invite a menacing shake of the horns and a snort. At which point, just retreat as fast as you can. You do not want to take the bull by its horns. Such phrases are never meant to be taken literally.
Out here in non-Indian territory, I get asked this question pretty frequently, in various forms, “Why do you guys worship cows?” And the answer has been invariably the following: “Worship is not the right word. You see thousands of years ago, a nomadic tribe of people wandered into India from the Central Asian plains. Imagine the distance and the terrain. Being nomads, they depended heavily on their livestock for sustennance. The cow gave them milk, yogurt and fresh cheese even when there was nothing else to be had. Naturally, the cow that was alive was more precious to them than a cow that was dead. So the law of these people was that you do not kill a cow, because she is the giver of life, the very source of it.
Then they encountered the inhabitants of India for whom the bull as Shiva’s mount was holy. Somehow the two ideas wed. So it came to pass that even when the nomadic people settled down and became agriculturists, even when the people who depended on the land and livestock for sustenance became urban, the taboo against beef eating persisted and the cow came to have a special status, even revered.”
In many ways, cows are to Indians what dogs are to people in other cultures. People attribute human emotion to them. Poor villagers who own a cow, treat her like a member of the family. It is said that a cow will cry when her master dies. So just like the average American or European would not entertain the idea of eating dog meat, so do even otherwise non-religious Hindus balk at eating beef.
For as long as I can remember, beef was never available freely in markets or restaurants. The few that did, qualified as “hole in the wall” setups, almost clandestine, where one did not go for the dining experience. Even McDonalds had to adjust to the ground realities in India and serve lamb and chicken burgers, more than fifteen years ago. So, that beef ban which apparently took the world by storm? Not a surprise, it was always there, just not officially in some states. And it should not surprise anyone that it got passed now, because given how slow our Indian judicial machinery is, bills take a really long time to get enacted as law. This particular one was languishing somewhere in the backrooms of the Maharashtra court for years.
So although lately media has been all ablaze with the news of some lunatics indulging in activities that can only be described as arson and murder, it should not be construed to mean that suddenly Indians have become very radicalized about the beef taboo. Lunatics exist in every society and have always existed, throughout history. It is just that now the whole world gets to know about each and every lunatic act that is committed, in gory detail, no matter how isolated and inconsequential to the grand scheme of things. All that the media exposure achieves in the end is to encourage more lunatics, who get narcissistic pleasure from seeing themselves on television or YouTube. Just like militants of every colour and creed.
Alright, enough heavy stuff. Yesterday, I made a traditional Indian dish out of ground meat. It’s called Keema matar, literally “ground meat with peas”. It is a very versatile and simple dish, yet very very tasty and satisfying. I had not made it in a long time, simply because I had forgotten about it. But last week my first-grader said, “Ma, when will you make that meat thing with the green peas? It was so good!”
So I went and got some ground meat the other day and decided to make it yesterday. The son stuffed a heaping spoonful in his mouth, rubbed his tummy and went, “Mmmmmm…” And then he reached over and kissed my hand! He has never ever done that before.
Recipe: The Minimalist Indian Curried Ground Meat with Peas a.k.a Keema Matar
The spices that go into this dish vary by region and even by family. This one is mainly inspired by the one that my mother used to make, with a few Minimalist modifications. I used tomato paste instead of fresh or canned tomatoes to save time. Ordinarily you would need to cook down the tomatoes until they are almost caramelized. By using ready made tomato paste, I cut down the cooking time.
Cooking time – 20 minutes.
Serves – 3
400 gms ground meat (I used half and half beef and pork, because that is the only kind readily available here in Germany. Use any meat you like, even ground chicken or turkey or a meatless substitute like soy granules, but see note below.
Half a cup shelled peas (I used frozen)
1 large onion for 1 cup of chopped onions
3 pods of cardamom
3 cm piece of cinnamon
1 and 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoon cumin powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp hot paprika/chilli powder/black pepper or more if you like spicy
1 tsp salt
2 tsp oil
Process: Heat oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. Crack cardamom pods and cinnamon with a mortar and pestle and add.
Toast for a few seconds until the air is fragrant. Add the onion. Saute until lightly browned. Make a slurry of the spice powders in about a quarter cup of water. Add along with tomato paste. Saute on low heat until oil separates or if you have added too little like me, just fry until the ingredients look like they have been married for years. They will come together in a sort of lump with a shiny surface (and excuse me if that sounds weird). Do not try to cut short this stage, it is crucial for the development of flavour and taste in Indian curries. Add a spoonful of oil if the mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Fry for a minute longer. Add the meat and mix well and allow to brown. Add salt, the peas and half a cup of water. Saute on low heat until meat is cooked through and everything is thoroughly incorporated. Give it five minutes. You need to let the spices infuse into the meat. Remove from heat.
Note – In case the ground meat is from lamb or mutton which tend to be stronger in flavour, you might need to add a tsp each of garlic and ginger paste. That is what my mother used to do. We did not eat beef or pork. Meatless substitutes will also benefit from a bit of ginger-garlic action to mask any strangeness in flavour. Also remember to soak your soy granules in hot water before cooking with them. Squeeze out the water and proceed with the cooking, but remember that you might need to add more liquid during cooking to keep everything moist.
This dish is traditionally eaten with roti or paratha – the Indian flatbreads. You can serve it with any kind of flatbread that you might have. Or like me, you can serve it with jeera rice or cumin infused Basmati rice.
Recipe: Cumin infused Basmati rice or jeera rice
Cooking time – 20 minutes. Start the rice before you start cooking the Keema.
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp oil or 1/2 tbsp oil and 1/2 tbsp ghee
1 tsp salt
Process – Heat oil in a heavy bottomed deep saucepan, add cumin and toast till brown. Add washed rice and toast until rice appears opaque. Add water and let everything come to a boil. Cover with a lid and lower the heat immediately to a simmer. Set your timer for 10 minutes and proceed with cooking your Keema. After 10 minutes, remove the cover and stir gently, especially bringing the rice at the bottom to the top. Remove from heat and replace cover. If the cover is not close-fitting, drape a kitchen towel over the pot and then put the lid. Let sit for another 10 minutes. After 10 minutes let the rice stand uncovered and undisturbed for five minutes. This hardens the grains so you won’t get breakage when you attempt to serve the rice.