Over the years I have shed many of the outward manifestations of my Sikh upbringing. I cut my long hair off when I was 14, 5000 days of hair growth falling to the floor of a barber’s shop like a dead crow. I last danced to bhangra at a wedding in Wolverhampton in 1999, looking as if I was being electrocuted while trying to simultaneously unscrew two light bulbs. And I’m so rusty in what was once my mother tongue that I struggle to convey simple instructions concepts such as “call the fire brigade, please” in Punjabi.
But there is one thing I have held onto deep into my thirties: I do not eat beef. Though I’m not sure why I persist in resisting. There are strict Sikhs who avoid all meat, but I’m not a particularly observant, and eat everything else. Besides, there are also some very serious bearded, turbaned sword-wielding Sikhs who freely partake of all kinds of flesh, the theological position being ambiguous.
It could be that I hold onto the dietary rule for cultural, rather than religious reasons: Indians do not generally like to partake of cow, in the same way that the English do not generally like to partake of dog. Or perhaps I simply want to hold onto something from my heritage. I grew up being told by my mother that eating beef was one of the worst things you could do, next to talking over your grandfather or checking out girls or walking across railway tracks or, for some reason, leaving the house after you’ve just sneezed… and I suppose it’s good to have some kind of connection to your past.
But then, recently, I did it. After a lifetime of scribbling “no holy cow” in the dietary requirements box of dinner invitations, I dined on fine steak. It was entirely unintentional. I had been invited to lunch by an educational charity that wanted advice on how to reach people from ethnic, working class backgrounds like mine. And then, as a mark of gratitude, and in an illustration of how far they hard to go when it came to understanding the ways of ethnic working class types, they insisted I stay for the posh steak they’d got in especially. I was caught, in that moment, between my instinctive need, as an Englishman, to avoid embarrassment at all costs, and a vague ethical principle I couldn’t really defend or articulate. So I murmured vague assent and braced myself for what turned out to be the most intense culinary experience of my life.
Not least, there was the practical challenge of scoffing the meat. How are you meant to eat steak? Should you cut it in half before proceeding to devour each half? Or should you go from the end, progressing through the steak until you reach the core? Also: was it acceptable to use salt or pepper or barbecue sauce? Or would that be the beef equivalent of smearing ketchup over sushi? In the end, I made a timid compromise, sprinkling salt on one end of the slab of meat, and taking a tiny bite.
I swallowed it whole. And managed to get the next bit down without it touching my teeth or tongue. But by the third bite I was masticating fully, albeit joylessly, feeling not unlike a celebrity being forced to eat kangaroo testicles on a reality TV show, and remembering how I was once nearly sick after inadvertently sampling a friend’s roast beef flavoured Monster Munch at school.
Suddenly, I was getting my first taste of beef. And you know what it reminded me of? Like being punched in the mouth. When a man in an apron had appeared before lunch asking me how I liked my meat done, I had replied “medium rare”, as I had heard friends mutter hundreds of times before, not entirely appreciating that this meant eating a half raw slab of meat. And one of the things I’ve never understood about beef eaters is the caveman obsession with bloodiness. If you ate a half raw pork chop or uncooked chicken, you’d fret about your health. Yet with steak it seems to be the point. I think I speak for a large portion of the Indian subcontinent when I say the mad cow scare didn’t come as a particular surprise.
However, this hypochondria eventually subsided only to be replaced with, more than anything else, an overwhelming sense of feeling… underwhelmed. Few foods are as festishised on this sceptred isle as beef. My British friends rave about their family Sunday roast, in the same way my Jewish friends go on about their grandmother’s chicken soup, and in the way Punjabis pine for our mother’s spicy parathas. And steak is one of those subjects, like Iraq, that everyone seems to have an opinion on. “A good steak should not leave greasiness on your palate,” they say. “A good steak should be at least an inch thick, have visible marbling and be seared on both sides.” And so, tediously, on.
But to be frank, I didn’t think the steak, which I couldn’t bring myself to finish, was any more sophisticated than a tender section of slow roasted lamb or a succulent pork chop. To be honest, it didn’t even taste particularly unfamiliar. This might have been because beef, when it comes down to it, is not dissimilar, taste wise, to venison, or ostrich. Or it might be because I worked in Burger King as a teenager and became used to the brawny aroma of flame-grilled beef. Then again, it might have something to do with… the hamburgers my mother fed us in industrial quantities as children.
Let me explain. After my accidental steak, I was overcome by guilt and shame and confided, tentatively, in my elder brother. He became very quiet when I confessed, turning a colour not dissimilar to the offending steak, before telling me not to fret, and reminding me that when we were kids our mum, despite what would eventually become her fanatical vegetarianism, was insistent we eat meat, for reasons of health.
There were burnt, burst pork sausages on Fridays, which I remember my father purchasing from the butcher’s behind our school, chicken curry once a week, which turned our fingertips yellow for days afterwards, and for a while, greyish meat patties which we smothered in tomato ketchup and inserted between bread buns.
My mother, who can’t read English, had seen them piled high in the local Kwiksave one day, and asked my brother what they were.
“Ham-burgers,” he had replied.
“Ham?” she had asked, pronouncing the word so that it rhymed with “perm” . “Which is pork, hunna?”
He inspected the ingredients, which read, vaguely, “80 per cent meat” and responded: “Han-ji.”
He must have been around 12 at the time. And he was in his teens by the time the error had become apparent. Did he tell her? No. Had he ever knowingly eat beef again? Well, there was that slight confusion with cheeseburgers. But otherwise, of course not. Though he couldn’t really explain why.
A version of this piece was broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb on Friday October 7 2011. Listen again here
© Sathnam Sanghera 2011