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Rude food: Should non-vegetarians be squeamish about what they eat?

We have the right to know exactly what we are eating. But judging by the European horse meat scandal, the global food industry doesn’t want us to know what’s on our plate, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Mar 23, 2013 16:51 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
non vegetarians,food,horese

Do non-vegetarians have the right to be squeamish about what they eat? Well, there are the usual religious reasons, of course. Hindus will not eat beef. Muslims and Jews will not eat pork. And there is the squeamishness about offal. The Gujarati in me keeps me from liking liver, brain, kidney, sweetbreads and all the other disgusting parts of the animal.

But should non-vegetarians have other reservations? Logic suggests no. But the truth is that we do. In the north of Thailand, they eat insects that look like cockroaches and locusts. In Laos, they eat ants. In much of South-East Asia, they eat snakes and drink their blood. And the Chinese brag that if it crawls, walks or flies, they will find a way to eat it. (Cue the old joke about Chinese food: how do we know that the Garden of Eden was not near Shanghai? Well, because if Adam and Eve had been Chinese they would have eaten the snake and thrown away the apple. And we would all still be in Paradise.) Most of us, in India and in the West, would visibly blanch when confronted with some of the more exotic foods served in East Asia. We would be uneasy with those parts of Caribbean and South American cuisine which involve the consumption of large rodents. And even English people make fun of the French for eating snails and frogs.

Show it to me: Determined Punjabi housewives first choose a cut of meat and then make the meat-wallah mince it into keema in front of them

To some extent, the revulsion that many of us feel when asked to eat insects, worms and ants is understandable. But is it fair to choose between animals? Take the case of dogs. There are parts of the Far East where Westerners are shocked to discover that dogs (the small, cuddly ones, especially) are regarded as delicacies.

Every English schoolboy grows up hearing the story of the British couple who go to a restaurant in Seoul only to find that the staff speaks no English. They make miming gestures to indicate they want something to eat. Then they point to their poodle and suggest he be fed as well. The food takes a long time to arrive but when it does turn up the Brits are horrified to find that the main course consists of Fido, roasted and laid out on a silver salver with a little apple in his mouth.

Over the last month, I’ve been wondering about the Western attitudes to the consumption of animals especially since it has been revealed that most Europeans eat horse meat on a pretty regular basis. Only they don’t realise that it is horse they are eating.

The latest scandal to hit the Western food industry has to do with the addition of horse meat to what is supposed to be minced beef or lamb. Tests have revealed that pretty much any supermarket product that is made from mince – hamburgers, sausages, lasagna, spaghetti bolognaise etc. – contains traces of horse meat. The supermarkets say that they had no idea that their mince was contaminated, though activists claim they deliberately turned a blind eye. What is clear is that any processed food (at restaurants, cafeterias, shops etc.) that has not been made from scratch on the premises stands a good chance of containing horse meat, no matter where in Europe you eat it. (Hence that popular expression, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”. Or perhaps not.)

The Bird song: Chicken sausages are often made with the chicken waste which usually means beaks and other parts of the bird that you would never dream of eating

There is still some dispute about how the horse meat got into the keema and why the problem is so widespread. But here’s my question: why is this such a big deal? As Hindus would say, if you can eat beef then does it matter if a little horse meat has been mixed with it? Some Hindus may actually find the horse meat easier to stomach than the beef.

It is not as though they do not eat horse in Europe. The French have been slaughtering horses for food for centuries. The Italians eat horse meat with their pasta. Hell, they even eat donkey meat in Verona. So is it such a huge issue if they mixed the beef keema with the horse keema? But apparently it is. The burgers and spaghetti sauces made with horse meat have been flying off the shelves for years and nobody seems to have been able to tell from the taste that they were not eating pure beef. So, if it tastes okay and if there are no religious injunctions against eating horse then why has the outrage been so widespread?

I suspect that it has to do with the legitimate desire to know exactly what is on the plate. In the West, nasty bits of fish or animal are routinely served up by stealth. Such interesting names as head-cheese and sweetbread conceal bits of offal, brain and gland. Fish are rarely identified correctly. If a menu at a British Chinese restaurant says ‘Long Fish’, it means snake or eel. Nobody serves ‘squid’ any longer; it is always ‘calamari’.

And the industrialisation of food production has made it worse. These days, food companies use machines that can grab every tiny bit of fish off the bones – i.e. the bits we would throw away in a home kitchen. All fish gathered in this way is pressed together by an industrial process, breaded and then sold as fish fingers. Sometimes bits of cheap fish are turned into sticks by machines, artificially flavoured and sold as ‘crab sticks’ even though there is no crab in them. (Remember that the next time you go to a sushi bar – 90 per cent of the time the crab and the wasabi are both fake.)

Among the worst offenders are the Western sausage companies. In the Sixties, the American consumer rights activist, Ralph Nader ran a campaign against the frankfurter. His supporters argued that franks and commercial sausages were usually made from the sweepings of abattoirs. And they were right. If there was any waste meat left lying around after the good bits had been packaged, it was gathered, pulverised and put into sausage skins and sold as frankfurters, cocktail sausages or whatever.

Nor are you safe if you order chicken sausages instead. These are often made with the chicken waste (as are industrial chicken cutlets, croquettes, etc.) which usually means beaks and other parts of the bird that you would never dream of eating.

And on and on it goes. Breaded scampi, in most Western supermarkets, often don’t have even one per cent of scampi in them (scampi is the Italian name for the large prawn the English call ‘Dublin Bay Prawns’ and the French call langoustine) but are made from monkfish remnants or from cheaper fish. Most breaded prawn dishes do not contain whole prawns but are made from ‘reconstituted’ prawns, cleverly shaped to look like the real thing.

Something’s fishy: Breaded scampi, in most Western supermarkets, often don’t have even one per cent of scampi in them

Till now, however, most people in the West believed that even if a fast food beef burger was made from the cheapest meat, at least it was not made from other animals. The latest scandal has demonstrated that this is no longer true. There are lessons for us in India from the European horse meat scandal. Squeamishness is only part of it. (For the record, I ate pasta with horse and a donkey pasta in Verona. Neither was terribly exciting. But neither tasted very strange either.) The key issue is one of trust.

Most of us live in homes where food is still made from fresh ingredients. If the gobhi has no flavour one week, then we can probably tell. If the meat tastes wrong, we will know when we eat it. Determined Punjabi housewives will first choose a cut of meat and then make the meat-wallah mince it into keema in front of them. When Bengalis buy fish, the men behave as though they are on a date: they feel the fish’s cheek and flutter its eyes.

So, Indians are hard to fool when it comes to most kinds of food. With each passing day, however, that’s changing. As more and more people work all day, we fall back on fast food, ready meals and pre-packaged ingredients. A day is not far off when, like our counterparts in the West, we will forget what fresh food tastes like and become easy prey for the global food companies and supermarkets.

And, for us in India, the dangers are greater. An Italian who finds horse meat in his pre-packaged Bolognaise sauce or Meat Ragu will get angry (or at least he will when he’s told that he’s been paying for beef and eating horse) but he will not have violated any religious principles. Indians are different. Put beef or pork in pre-packaged food or fast food without making this clear and you risk offending the religious sensibilities of millions. Plus we are much more squeamish than Europeans. Would you buy a chicken sausage if you knew if contained beaks? Would you eat a pasta sauce if you knew it was made from a donkey?

Most food prejudices are illogical. But for better or worse, they are our prejudices and we feel sick when they are violated. So we have the right to know exactly what we are eating. But judging by the European horse meat scandal, the global food industry not only does not want us to know what is on the plate but it is so lax in the sourcing of ingredients that it often doesn’t even know itself what it is putting into its dishes.

From HT Brunch, March 24

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First Published: Mar 22, 2013 13:46 IST