“I, for one, eat it, provided it is tender."

This declaration from one of ancient India’s greatest sages is something today’s Hindu nationalists would rather forget—if, indeed, they are even aware of it, a response from Yajnavalkya, one of Hinduism’s most revered minds, to the assertion: “Let him (the priest) not eat the flesh of the cow and the ox."

The source of this exchange is a 1906 work called History of India: Volume 1—From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century B.C. by Romesh Chunder Dutt, an economist and historian in the service of the old Baroda state. But you can find references to Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating beef in a number of historical works that examine the Shatapatha Brahmana, where the sage’s riposte is contained.

The Shatapatha Brahmana is one of the chief sources of information about the Vedic age, a period roughly between 1,500 and 500 years before Christ, a time that saw the composition of some of Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, the Vedas. It is an era that many Hindus believe to be their golden age, attributing to it a pureness of scripture and spirit (and unsullied, of course, by the coming of Islam).

Yajnavalkya, an argumentative man who clearly revelled in challenging established wisdom, evolved many of the personal laws that Hindus use today. His approach to beef-eating, at a time when it was receding, is symptomatic of the questioning attitude that created one of the world’s oldest religions. But history’s nuances are difficult to shoehorn into Hinduism’s modern dogmas.

One of those dogmas deal with what is now a central tenet of Hindu society: the abjuring of meat, particularly beef. But meat-eating—and its rules and customs—is widely discussed in Hinduism’s sacred scriptures. In his seminal work, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, the late K.T. Achaya, a food historian and scientist, describes in great detail how the Harappans, the Vedic Aryans and ancient south Indians, “like their contemporaries elsewhere in the world", enjoyed eating a variety of animals and drinking liquor.

Achaya notes that 50 animals were deemed fit for sacrifice, “and by inference for eating". Markets had stalls according to the meats they sold, including gogataka (cattle), arabika (sheep), shukharika (swine), nagarika (deer) and gidhabuddaka (alligator and tortoise). Domestic Vedic rites, or grhya sutras, list how different meats influence a child’s nature. When a child was first given food other than milk—the annaprasana ceremony—the choices ranged from ram’s meat for strength to partridge flesh for saintliness to fish for gentleness.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a treatise of statecraft, now about 2,300 years old, refers to a superintendent of slaughterhouses, implying state supervision of animal slaughter, and the sale of cooked meat in markets. Around the same time, one of the great texts of Ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita, offers many edible meats, “the more unusual of which are those of the alligator, tortoise, jackal and porcupine", writes Achaya.

It all probably started changing after the era of Yajnavalkya, who appears to have been the last of the conscientious objectors to the prohibition against beef. Prohibitions regarding meat-eating began showing up in the scriptures of his time, and as the era of Jesus Christ began, vast swathes of northern India had gone vegetarian.

Pre-Aryan southerners had no qualms about eating meat. There were four names for beef—indicating general acceptance, notes Achaya. The idea of vegetarianism really came to the south only about 500 years before Christ. It is likely that southern states—though the census does not ask—have the lowest percentage of vegetarians. There was no social opprobrium involved in eating meat, and while the south is now known for its vegetarian food, non-vegetarian traditions are still strong.

This is how I watched a stream of Hindus at my local slaughterhouse earlier this week shopping for entrails, hooves and sheep head, the last presumably to make the local Tamilian (specifically, Chettiar) specialty of thalai fry, literally, head fry. I was there to get some fresh lamb. The vague idea in my head was to recreate some Vedic cooking. I had no recipes, but a description of a great spread at the sacrificial fire of king Dasharath, father of Hindu god Ram (who, by the way, appeared to love a deer biryani of sorts), gave me some pointers.

Dasharath’s buffet, explained in a now-rare 1972 book called Saga of Indian Food: A Historical and Cultural Survey (it appears to be available online for $125, or around 7,875), says that the meats served, including pork and peacock, were cooked in fruit juices with whole spices. This was enough for me. I had no exotic meats available, so I settled for a leg of lamb cut into standard cubes. You can read the result of my experiment below. You must remember that although many Indian cuisines are known for their fire, chillies were probably unknown in Vedic times. If you want spiciness, add some red-chilli powder, as I suggest, but try to drop the chilli altogether. In an attempt to be faithful to the ideas of the Ramayan, I used ghee and no powdered spices. I had to use an open flame, as the ancients did, even if it was fired by compressed natural gas instead of fragrant Vedic wood.

I don’t know what Yajnavalkya usually had for lunch, and my interpretation may be far from authentic, but I have a feeling he might have approved.

Lamb with plums and pomegranate

Serves 6

Ingredients

1kg lamb

2-3 large plums, roughly chopped

3 tbsp pomegranate seeds

15 cloves

10 cardamom

1-inch piece cinnamon

2 tsp red-chilli powder

3 tsp ginger-garlic paste

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 tbsp ghee

2 cups litchi juice

Salt to taste

Method

In a large pot, preferably non-stick, gently heat ghee. Drop in whole spices (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom) until they start to swell. Add the onion slices and sauté till golden brown. Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a minute. Stir in the chilli powder and sauté for a minute, adding dribs of litchi juice if it starts to stick. Add meat and turn heat on high, so that the lamb is seared. After about 15 minutes, add the plums and pomegranate. Add salt and litchi juice. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Simmer and cook for about an hour, stirring at frequent intervals, or until done. The liquid will slowly thicken. Add a little water, should you wish to create some gravy.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Also Read | Samar’s previous Lounge columns

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