Whenever Parliament is in session, Jantar Mantar Road becomes the focus of the media, as rebels from around the country flock to the designated protest site on the street in an attempt to catch the attention of the government. But even days when  there is a political lull, many Delhi journalists can be sighted in the area – usually in the afternoon. For right in the middle of Jantar Mantar Road is Kerala House, a slice of God's Own Country in the Capital, with its distinctive tile-covered roof.

The journalists and assorted South Indian residents head straight to the staff canteen at the back of the complex, where beef and fish are served at very affordable prices. (In the main canteen, which is reserved for VIPs and residents of Kerala House, beef is not usually served.) After a heavy lunch of beef fried with coconut slices, the journalists stroll back to their offices at the INS building and have a quick slumber.

Kerala House, which the Delhi Police raided on Monday after a complaint that cow meat was on the menu, has now become the new symbol of the tyranny of dietary proscriptions.  At a press conference on Tuesday, Kerala Chief minister Oomen Chandy took serious objection to the Delhi Police entering Kerala House, and has written a letter of complaint to to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

More protests

He wasn't the only Malayalee to make a noise about this. Kerala MPs have described Delhi police commissioner BS Bassi as the B team of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva organisation that has been pressing for a nationwide beef ban. Former Kerala Chief Minister AK Antony, whose Delhi residence is next door to Kerala House, also chimed in to assert that no one had the right to decide what others should eat, even though he himself is a vegetarian.

Their protests are scarcely surprising. For Malayalees of all faiths, beef has always been a staple food. To begin with, it's cheaper (Rs 235 a kg) than mutton, which retails for Rs 500 per kg in Kerala. While mutton is a delicacy reserved for weddings and special occasions, a plate of beef fry can be had for Rs 50 to Rs 75 in any restaurant.  After a hearty meal, expect a Malayalee to exclaim: “Besttt beef!"

There's also the fact that Kerala beef curry is astonishingly delicious. There are two classics: beef olathiyathu (meat, preferably veal, diced, with coconut) and the beef curry in which the pieces of meat are slow-boiled with spices and potato, and finished with coconut milk to give the curry a light brown twirl. Both these curries are claimed by the state's Syrian Christians as their contribution to Kerala’s development index.

Along with these classics, new innovations spread through the state in the middle of the last century, thanks to the efforts of three  Syrian Christian matriarchs: Mrs BF Varughese, Mrs KM Mathew and Mrs Thangam Philip. With their cookbooks and magazine columns, they taught several generations of Keralites over half a century, how to cook. In addition to these two curries, they popularised beef cutlets, beef ball curry, and chilly beef. A new beef dish by Mrs Mathew would send Syrian Christian families into a flutter of excitement and slurping.

Modernising the tradition

As if to keep this tradition alive, the relatively new Suriani Kitchen cookbook by Lathika George, reinvents these favourites. George includes more modern chili beef steaks, beef liver fry, and the spicy beef pot roast, an acknowledgement of outside influences.

Beef has long been in its menu due to the state's large population of Syrian Christians, as well as its Muslims. But it is common to see Hindu butchers and Hindu-owned beef stalls in Kerala. Hindus in Kerala as elsewhere  have historical links with cattle sacrifice and meat. Writes well-known historian MGS Narayanan, "Animal slaughter for sacrifice was common during the Vedic age. The sacrificial animal was called pasu, a term that is used to denote the cow in Kerala.”

Like for so many of its other staples, including rice and vegetables, Kerala depends on neighbouring Tamil Nadu for its beef. Hordes of cattle, mostly cows, are transported from there, either on foot or in trucks and landed in about 44 markets in Kerala.

“On an average roughly 3,000 animals are ferried into Kerala from other states,” H Kamaludheen, general secretary of Meat and Cattle Merchants association in Kerala, told the Indian Express.  Cattle are also ferried all the way from Odisha and Bengal.  The public sector Meat Products of India sells beef and veal at its outlets across the state.

However, recent trends suggest that Syrian beef curries may be locked in a popularity battle with Malabari dishes from north Kerala. Malabari matriarchs are popularising dishes like Kozhikodan mutton biriyani from Calicut and Thalasserry chicken dum biriyani.  As if to officially signal this intrusion, Paragon, the famed Calicut sea food restaurant, has opened a branch at Lulu’s mall in Kochi and is also popularising  Calicut’s famous biriyanis. Here beef is a silent bystander.