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Can you make a hamburger without beef? The answers to this question may surprise you. Yes, technically you need minced (or chopped) beef for a hamburger. But Indians have never taken that seriously.
Till the mid-1990s, almost every hamburger in India was made without beef. There was a reason for this. Even before the current hysteria began, the slaughter of cows was banned in most Indian states, with a few notable exceptions: Kerala, Bengal, the North-East, etc.
So restaurants had two choices. They could either make the burger patties from mutton (goat) or from buffalo meat. While buffalo meat is closer to beef than mutton, most Indian preferred the taste of goat. So, at nearly every standalone restaurant, you were offered a choice of a vegetable burger or what was sometimes described on the menu as a “Mutton Hamburger”. The mutton version was always goat.
Five star hotels, especially those with foreign chefs, sometimes used buffalo (called “tenderloin” on the menu) but hardly anyone used beef. It was hard to get local beef. You found it in Calcutta but the Oberoi Grand, the city’s only real five-star hotel till the late 1980s, used mutton for its hamburger. And in Kerala, where beef was easy to come by, the state’s only five-star hotel, the Kovalam Beach Resort, was run by ITDC whose chefs liked mutton.
The truth is that till food imports were liberalised in the mid-1980s, it was virtually impossible to import beef into India. It was only when the import polices changed that hotels (and later standalone restaurants) had access to real beef, and started putting Angus, Wagyu and the like on the menu. Even then, there was resistance to putting a beef hamburger on the coffee shop or room service menus because imported beef was expensive, and the burgers cost a lot.
When the fast food chains arrived, they did not even bother with imported beef. Or buffalo, for that matter. They stuck to mutton. McDonald’s original Maharaja Mac was a mutton burger but it failed and was taken off the menu. Those who have persisted with hamburgers made from red meat, have used goat or lamb.
And now, the trend is to use chicken. More and more restaurants are passing off Chicken sandwiches as burgers to great commercial success.
So yes, the beef ban makes it hard to get a classic hamburger in parts of India. But let’s not kid ourselves. It was always nearly impossible to get real beef burgers anyway.
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.