In India, tradition is everywhere—especially on beaches and busy intersections, where cows lounging around are totally the norm. For the South Asian country's Hindu majority, cattle are considered holy beings, and according to scripture, they are the children of a goddess who also takes form as the Divine Mother, Dev.
It's a spiritual belief that's even reflected in Indian laws, with slaughtering cows banned in almost all of the country's 29 states. Except for one state, that is, where eating beef is not only legal and accepted, but also an important cultural tradition.
In Kerala, a coastal Indian state known for its backwaters and spice plantations, beef became a popular dish 2,000 years ago, introduced by the Nasranis or Syrian Christians. There's even a saying in some parts of Kerala that goes, "A Nasrani meal is not complete without beef fry"—a popular dish packed with the chilies, cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon that Kerala is known for producing.
"We really grew up eating beef," says Prima Kurien, a chef who grew up in the Kerala city of Kottayam. "Beef was on the table once a day, at least three or four times a week. That's why this entire beef controversy is very scary."
Eating beef is a subject that's historically been taboo in India, but lately it's a debate that's sizzling more than ever. In October, a Kerala canteen in New Delhi was raided by authorities for illegally serving beef, operating on a tip from a right-wing Hindu group. According to Indian media, the restaurant was actually serving buffalo —which is also often called beef—and therefore allowed to stay open.
But the flames are still hot, and last year a Muslim man in northern India was beaten to death over allegedly eating beef regularly. Since the raid, Kerala politicians and citizens have been up in arms about what they call cultural disrespect, and the government's attempt to control people's right to choose what they eat.
Kurien, who runs a catering company serving traditional Kerala food in Delhi, does cook beef upon request in curry, stew, and also little patties, just like she used to eat as a child. But according to the chef, it must always be a "hush-hush affair."
"I am extremely careful," she says. "If I was providing food for a public affair, I would always avoid beef. I only do it privately if someone asks for it. Why honestly get into trouble?"
Kurien says that in Kerala, beef is a secular dish enjoyed by everyone regardless of religion, and her Delhi customers also come from different religions too.
"All kinds of people—Hindus, Christians, Muslims, or whatever—are up for trying it these days," she says. "It's a great time to be a chef in India. People are becoming open to all kinds of cuisine—for example, even sushi. India is really exploring food in a big way right now."
While the country's growing middle class is reveling in all kinds of new cuisine, Kerala is shying away from tradition in its own way too.
"In my hometown, I've seen over the years fewer people eating beef and turning away red meat because of health issues," says Kurien.
Likewise, beef fry (or ulariyathu, as it's known in the local Malayi language) isn't always easy to find unless you where to go.
The Zuri Kumarakom, a luxury resort in Kerala, serves plenty of local traditional dishes, but the only beef on the menu is a steak dish sourced from Scotland.
"We could never get it locally because it wouldn't be up to our standards of hygiene and quality control," says executive chef Macs Millan Colbey. "At our restaurant, we've had to design a menu that appeals not just to Indian tourists but also the great majority of our guests who come from Arab countries. Beef is just not a priority."
A survey by the volunteer organization Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad found in 2006 said that only about 7 percent of households in the southern state eat beef daily on a daily basis, compared to 60 percent where fish is always on the table.
"We grew up eating everything," echoes Colbey, who was also born in Kerala and raised Christian. "But we ate more fresh fish and fish curry than anything."
While Kerala may really be seafood country at the end of the day, Kurien says beef in the local fiery style is still a tradition worth carrying on.
"We do pride ourselves on our beef, but we pride ourselves on our cuisine in general," says Kurien. "Beef is just one component of everything we eat."