Buoyed by politics, Beef has become something more than food in Kerala at present. For the ‘Left-Liberals,’ beef is a symbol of their freedom to select and eat the food of their choice. In short, beef has transformed from food to a political tool in Kerala. That is why the left organizes Beef Festivals in Kerala, a state where there is no ban on beef.
Even the organisers of Beef Festivals won’t disagree with the fact that these festivals are not food festivals. They are political statements challenging certain values and lifestyles of Hindus though they are no more religiously followed by Hindus. By organizing beef festivals, the left liberals are trampling upon the sensibilities of a helpless group hoping that their ruthless antics will entrench them in the hearts of Muslims and Christians in Kerala for whom beef is an important part of their food.
How did beef become a symbol of progressive ideology in Kerala? Was beef part of traditional diet of the common man in Kerala whom the communists claim to represent? Or does it symbolize an alien culture which has subjugated Kerala. Is the left in Kerala taking up such imaginary issues because they lack symbols around which they can rally people? As a last possibility we also need to think if the Left Groups have been infiltrated by extremist groups who force them to take positions that crush Hindu sentiments? We need to think, but at the same time we need to accept the fact that in the present Kerala beef as a food has more acceptability than in many other parts of India.
Different aspects of popularity of beef in Kerala
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that about 90 per cent of Keralites taste beef at least once in a while. It means the social taboo against beef does not exist among Hindus in Kerala. At the same time, it is wrong to think that all those who eat beef cook it at home. A good number of Hindus who eat beef eat it only from restaurants and don’t cook it at home. Beef eating is something like social drinking for at least a few Keralites.
There is also regional, caste and class difference among the Hindus who cook beef at home.
History of beef eating in Kerala
Till 1970s majority of Nairs in Kerala never ate beef. Beef was not a regular food even among OBC Ezhava community or scheduled caste communities. The only community in Kerala who ate beef in Kerala historically is Sambava community who are considered to be the lowest of all castes in Kerala.
Before 1950s this community has been reported to take away dead cows. Rich families who owned cows will give away dead cows to those people. Members of Sambava community reportedly ate the meat and used the hide to make drums used in temples. It was perhaps because of their Beef eating habits Sambavas were considered to be untouchables even by other scheduled caste communities. Later reformation movements in Hindu society saw an end to practices like eating dead cow.
Now to come to the point, analyzing food habits of Kerala Hindus point to the fact that beef was considered to be a lower status food in Kerala by the upper castes and economically well off OBCs in Kerala once. Of course, respect to cows was there among Kerala Hindus too and very rarely one will find a Slaughter House for Killing Cows, Bulls or Buffaloes run by a Hindu of any caste in Kerala even now.
Rise in popularity of Beef
Beef began gaining popularity and respectability in Kerala by 1970s. There is a social angle to this. The land reforms implemented by the Communists in Kerala had broken the backbone of upper caste Nairs and Namboothiries and the rich among Ezhavas. The rich among minorities were not affected by it and their economic status was untouched. It was almost at the same time that the Gulf boom started in Kerala and this saw Muslims and Christians, especially Muslims becoming richer. Soon their social respectability increased. This meant their food habits and culture became acceptable at least to a section of Hindus. Those who worked in minority institutions and those who frequently interacted with them started tasting beef and along with it a new delicacy
The ubiquitous tea shops in Kerala which once sold only dishes like Idly, Puttu, Idiyappam (Noolputtu), Dosa, Vada etc started selling Porottas also made of fine wheat powder imported from north Indian states. “Tough” Porottas demanded some different curries to go with it and Beef Curry emerged as the right choice. Along with tea shops Country Liquor shops also began selling Porotta and a variety of Beef dishes and Beef soon emerged as the food of the new rich Gulf returnees and local ‘Rough and Tough machos’.
Some market reasons also contributed to the popularity of Beef. Till the second half of 1990s cost of chicken was high in Kerala and Beef was low. Beef provided a cheap alternative to those who wanted to eat meat. Strict implementation of ban on killing wild animals and birds like herons also popularized beef among meat eaters. Thus with the taboo of beef eating gone with the social superiority gained by minorities market realities like price also contributed to its popularity. But even then, it did not become a respectable food for Hindus.
However by 90s end price of chicken fell but people did not reject the costly beef. From now onward it is social rather than market reasons which helped beef to retain popularity. By 90s, the social equilibrium of Kerala completely changed and flow of petro dollars began to peak. Even Hindus in Kerala flocked to Gulf in large numbers as Communist Kerala produced few jobs for the youth. Life in GCC made Hindu youth from Kerala familiar with Beef as Kerala eateries there which are mostly run by non-Hindus offer variety of beef dishes. While the main dish in Pakistani and Arab eateries in GCC are mutton and chicken, in Kerala eateries it is beef. Non resident Keralites soon accepted beef and retained their likings even back home.
Thus over a period the cultural and food habits of Keralites changed. New social and economic realities saw Hindus readjusting their preferences. The food culture of minorities got marked and habits of minorities who turned out to be successful in life became worth imitating. Therefore eating beef became something progressive which successful people do. Not many wanted to be marked as an obscurantist who shies away from Beef. The food culture of minorities prevailed over food culture of the majority.To sum up, the respectability to beef dishes in Kerala is the result of a changed social hierarchy in Kerala where minorities have become more powerful socially and economically than the majority.