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The food politics of Lakshadweep

What will be lost if meat is removed from midday meals and beef is banned in the islands?

Beef is integral to the cuisine of Lakshadweep. (iStockPhoto)
Beef is integral to the cuisine of Lakshadweep. (iStockPhoto)

In the 1990s, when Sukhaina Moosa was growing up in the blue-green archipelago of Lakshadweep, school midday meals had a simple menu of steamed rice, dal and a green gram sabzi. “All students could have it, while some would hurry home for a quick lunch,” says Moosa, 31, who now runs a YouTube page, Foodiemesu, with recipes of dishes from the islands.

In the decades since, the menu has changed; it’s no longer “boring”. It includes non-vegetarian dishes like chicken and fish. “There are a few students whose families can’t afford even one square meal a day. The midday meals are all they have,” says Moosa, adding that all schools in Lakshadweep are run by the Union government.

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Last month, when news about the proposed ban on cow slaughter and removal of meat from midday meals made headlines, Moosa was infuriated. “We don’t have a problem with not having beef. The problem is woh (the Lakshadweep administration) hamarein ghar mein ghuske hamare saath manmaani kar rahe hain (they are forcing their ideas on us).”

Earlier this year, the Union territory’s administrator, Praful Patel, came up with the draft of the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, to stop cow slaughter. By mid-year, the administration was pushing for removal of meat from midday meals. The Kerala high court stayed the decision on midday meals—the division bench noted that such a move would run contrary to the National Programme of Mid Day Meal, which is intended to nurture the physical and mental health of children.

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In Lakshadweep—only 10 of the 36 islands are inhabited—about 96.5% of the population of approximately 70,000 is Muslim. Beef is an integral part of the diet of Muslim communities everywhere, especially at ceremonies. Lakshadweep is no different, though everyday meals comprise rice and fish cooked in coconut and fresh spices like ginger, garlic and green chillies.

Most of the kitchen staples and grains come from the mainland. Even cows are transported to the islands. “Therefore, the consumption of beef depends on availability,” says F.G. Mohammed, secretary of the Society for Protection of Environment Culture Tradition Resources and Unity of Maliku (Spectrum). When the sea is stormy, the vessels stop plying.

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During festivals, however, all kinds of meat—beef, mutton and chicken—is available in abundance. Community kitchens are set up; food is not cooked in individual homes. After qurbani on Bakri Eid, beef is distributed freely to those with lesser means.

YouTuber Safiyulla Mona, whose channel offers glimpses of Lakshadweep, says, “For all big functions, the focus is beef. There are several biryanis like fish, mutton and chicken. But, I’d say that 90% of the guests would dig into the beef biryani.”

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Abdul Hameed Koya, 66, now lives in Kerala but grew up on Kalpeni island in the 1960s-70s. An educationist who even had a three-year stint as media adviser to the administrator of Lakshadweep, he recalls big feasts for milestone ceremonies like circumcision and ear-boring. The menu, he says, would be simple: coconut rice, beef curry and roast fish. Rice would be steamed in fresh coconut milk, while the fish would be roasted with chilli paste and coconut vinegar. “In my childhood and through my youth, the food in the islands was not homogenised. Dishes like beef fry, chicken curry or biryani were rare. The masalas were hand-pounded and food would be cooked in large vats over a fire fuelled by wood and dry leaves sourced from the coconut tree, which added a wonderful smoky flavour.”

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Not unnaturally then, locals are worried about what they perceive as an attack on their lifestyle—new fiats that could take a toll on their distinct identity.

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