A look into the bizarre history of vegetarian meat in Calcutta
By Chitralekha Basu
“I will eat you now, Kali
I will eat you now
O Mother Mercy, carer of the poor
Born in an inauspicious momentÂ
I was destined to eat my mother
Whether you eat me, Mother, or I eat you
Weâ€™ll do one or the other, before I go
I will have the two witches by your side curried
Snatch your garland of human heads and use it as seasoning in the sweet and sour syrup.”
~ Ramprasad Sen, c. 1770, translated by Chitralekha Basu
Just the other day, a Calcutta-based group in favour of liberal thinking staged a public protest against the killing of a Muslim man in Dadri, a village in the outskirts of Delhi. It was meant to be a show of solidarity with the deceased, who was lynched to death by a mob that suspected him of slaughtering a cow and eating its meat. The protestors ate beef and invited passers-by to share the food. There werenâ€™t too many takers for the free meat though. The “beef party” wrapped up even before it could take off.
The proliferation of Kali temples in mid-19thÂ century Calcutta is owed primarily to reasons gastronomic. Citizens brought up in Hindu homes were finally shaking off generations of cultural conditioning and submitting to the pleasures of tasting animal flesh. While cooking and consuming meat at home was still anathema to most, the rule was relaxed when it concerned “sacred” meat, the sort offered to the idol of the Mother Goddess as part of the rituals of worship and taken to be purified by her blessings. The Kali temples that rose across the city were only decoys, like massage parlours today are sometimes a front for brothels. As SW Goode writes in â€˜Municipal Calcuttaâ€™ (1916):
“Calcutta at one time abounded in Kalisthans, i.e. places where goat meat was sold in the presence of an image of Kali to show the animal had been consecrated to the goddess before it was sacrificed.”Â 
However, not everything sold in the name of the Goddess was worth consuming. Anything on legs, except perhaps the household furniture, was being sacrificed at the altar of appetite. Given the illicit nature of these enterprises, quality control was out of the question. The eager, new breed of meat consumers who could not afford to book a table at European diners like Wilsonâ€™s (now the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel) were cool about it. Part of the lure, one imagines, lay in the dubious nature of these “consecrated” cooked meat stores. The stealth involved in gorging on forbidden food, and the potentially lethal implications of consuming such junk, must have made for a heady combination.
Religious sanction can make an act of transgression look particularly alluring, especially when one knows that at the end of the day, it isnâ€™t really about religion. People start falling over each other, clamouring to find a place in the community of radicals, without stopping to think if this is what they really want for themselves. The crowds swarming around pop-up kiosks to buy “mutton chowmien” during Durga Puja in present-day Calcutta is similar to the consumers queuing up in front of cooked meat stands in the mid-19thÂ century. Eating out is a ritual to be observed on the days of the autumnal festival, and anyone worrying about the provenance of the meats they are served at the five-day carnival must be a complete spoilsport.
Anyway, when the British ruled Calcutta during the 19thÂ century, they felt responsible for the safekeeping of public health and hygiene. In 1884, the municipal authorities of Calcutta passed a law prohibiting buying meat from anywhere except government-run abattoirs. The ban, however, did not extend to the Mother Goddessâ€™s temple in Kalighat, where the ritual sacrifice of young goats with spotless black coats continues to this day.
They call it vegetarian meat, so named for the absence of onions and garlic â€“ the two ostensibly lust-inducing ingredients, which would be removed from the diet of a Hindu widow for that very reason. The trickiest part of preparing such a dish is to be able to neutralize the smell of raw meat cooked without marinade. A seasoned cook might still be able to whip up a consommÃ©, as Buddhadeva Bose writes in â€˜Bhojon-shilpi Bangaliâ€™ (the art of Bengali gastronomy, 1971), by adding “only a couple of “soft-spoken” cayenne leaves and allowing the clear soup to be â€˜lit up by the glow of droplets distilled from the meatâ€™s own essence.” 
However, going by personal experience, sacrificial meat, usually sautÃ©ed with only a touch of ginger, roasted cumin powder, black pepper, mustard seeds and a pinch of ghee, often remains a bit raw at the core, the veins still red and distinguishable. Evidently, getting to like vegetarian meat is a matter of acquired taste and itâ€™s a dish probably not for the faint-hearted.
What I love about vegetarian meat is its name. Unlike the faux-meat served in vegan restaurants, which is essentially soy protein dressed up and flavoured to replicate the sensation of consuming the real thing, the Calcutta variety of vegetarian meat is not about passing something off as another. Unlike kathaler aamsattwa (jackfruit-pulp mango leather) â€“ the other food paradox commonly used in Bengali speech to mean a bogus, fantastical idea â€“ the meat here is real. The crucial part has to do with imagining the meat as vegetarian â€“ as innocent and chaste as a slice of fresh fruit. In my mind, partaking of vegetarian meat is informed by an impulse similar to sitting down to watch a stage production of J.M. Barrieâ€™s ‘Peter Pan’, or ‘The Boy Who Wouldnâ€™t Grow Up’. Scepticism is the first thing to throw out the window before the show begins.
In an ever-popular song written by the devotional poet Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) â€“ the opening lines quoted above were translated into English for the reader â€“ the poet wishes to devour the biggest patron of vegetarian meat, the Mother Goddess herself. And like an adolescent eager to get his first go at chasing the dragon, it seems he cannot wait. Pure and absolute devotion inspires the urge for total submission to the person one worships but even more so perhaps to the idea that such love might even be possible. The idea of ingesting oneâ€™s beloved is an extreme way of re-affirming and reposing faith in the power and sanctity of the relationship.
Having said that, Ramprasad makes us believe the meal he makes of the Mother Goddess and her cohorts is a thing to be relished. There is none of the solemnity associated with the ritual of Holy Communion at Christâ€™s Last Supper and its symbolic re-enactment during a church service, which is also about the idea of devouring the divine. We can almost hear a not-too-faint slurping as the poet fondly lingers on what looks like a full-course meal, complete with a side dish of curried witches and a sweet-and-sour meal-ender in which human skulls are sprinkled like mustard seeds. What at the outset had seemed like a ghastly, fantastical idea is made familiar, relatable and even childlike in its ardour, a bit like love without sex.
The visual detailing in Ramprasadâ€™s song reminds me of the Cuban writer Virgilio Pineraâ€™s story, â€˜Meatâ€™, in which the people of a fictional town turn to cannibalizing themselves after the meat supply dries up. There is a graphic description of how Ansaldo, who started the alternative food movement, slices a neat fillet off his left buttock, marinades it with salt and vinegar, passes it through the broiler and ultimately has it fried in a big pan he used to fry tortillas in. When girlfriends meet on the street in that story they cannot kiss any more as they have eaten their lips, and the dancer cannot perform, having consumed himself completely. In Pineraâ€™s story, unrestrained greed is shown to be chipping away at the base of human civilization as we know it even as people keep up a pretence that everything is alright, almost normal, that the coming collapse of humanity is not imminent. While the irreversibility of this unstoppable, self-cannibalizing impulse is unnerving, at some level the consuming desire to stay alive at the cost of ingesting oneself, or oneâ€™s own, is also risible.
Food and its consumption have traditionally been used as metaphors of desire with potentially-lethal implications in European art and literature, beginning with the Book of Genesis. Peter Greenaway does it to a shockingly captivating effect in his film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). In the Greenaway film, Albert, the don, finds out about his wife Georgianaâ€™s affair with Michael, a catalogue-maker who lives in a book depository, and chokes him to death by stuffing pages torn off the books Michael had cherished and held dear down his throat. Georgiana has her revenge by having an elaborate roast made of Michaelâ€™s body and forcing Albert to eat it.
Such crimes of passion, I imagine, would be antithetical to the idea of vegetarianism in a Hindu Bengali salaried-class milieu where the word “non-vegetarian” is often used as a code for sex. For example, when journalists who write in Bengali dailies speculate about a possible relationship between two people who are often seen together on Page Three but claim to be “just friends”, they sometimes call it “keeping it at the vegetarian level”. In this part of the world, going vegetarian is still associated with celibacy and an inclination to spiritualism, or, in other words, being a bit odd. Recent instances of friends announcing their wish to go vegetarian on Facebook have elicited strong responses, with sworn votaries of non-vegetarianism condemning them for wanting to destabilise the food chain.
But the point about the Calcutta variety of vegetarian meat is that one doesnâ€™t have to be particularly devout, or a vegetarian, to be able to appreciate the item.Â In fact, one doesnâ€™t even have to sample the dish. One way of loving it is to draw pleasure from the fact that the term vegetarian meat does not get us an inch closer to resolving the delicious tension between two antithetical ideas mentioned in the same breath, or to comprehending either. It is a truly delectable combo, if ever there was one.
 Goode, S.W. ‘Municipal Calcutta: Its Institutions in Their Origin and Growth’, Corporation of Calcutta, T and A, Constable. Edinburgh, 1916
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, translator and singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satiristâ€™s View of Colonial Calcutta’, was published by Stree-Samya in 2012 with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri. She is also published in The Caravan magazine and Asia Literary Review. Â She is writing a series of essays for China Daily. She lives in Hong Kong.