India is embroiled in a ‘food war’ surrounding biryani

In India, pots of biryani are being checked for beef by police. Pic: Charles Haynes/flickr

BIRYANI is one of India’s staple dishes – a golden-hued, spiced rice dish often layered with meat. But of late, the dish has been caught in the middle of a discourse about religion, caste, and ultimately, politics.

The controversy stems in parts of the Haryana state in northern India where police have been taking measures to check pots of mutton biryanis at public eateries for signs of beef.

Across the country, India’s majority of Hindus abstain from beef as they consider the animal to be sacred. Most meat biryanis at a Hindu-operated restaurant are made with chicken or mutton, but never beef.

However, the country’s two largest minorities — Muslims and Dalits, the former “untouchables” on the caste chain – observe no such strictures.

This has led to many street vendors in Haryana at the center of the crackdown shutting down their shops even though demand for beef biryani is highest during the Muslim holidays.

Social scientist Shiv Viswanathan, professor at Jindal Global Law School in Haryana, told npr, “The battle around food is not just about eating. Food is essentially the grammar of society. You show hospitality through food. You can also insult someone through food.”

The conversation becomes more complex when the origins of biryani is taken into consideration. Unlike many other Indian dishes, biryani has Muslim roots, and was claimed to have been brought in as Mughlai cuisine via Muslim rulers from Persia and central Asia.

npr added that the recent raids for beef biryani were ordered by Haryana’s Cow Service Commission, whose mission is to look after the welfare of cattle. There’s also a 24-hour helpline for people to report incidents of cow slaughter.

Currently, more than 20 states in India forbid cow slaughter, beef eating, or both.

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