In Rayaz Beef King restaurant, chunks of beef sizzle in a silken red gravy, gargantuan pots of beef biryani are emptied in a matter of hours and moist beef rolls are expertly assembled by the dozens. Sheikh Rayaz, the proprietor of the 40-year-old establishment, insists that business has been “always good”. Even on a sleepy weekday afternoon, the two-storied establishment at the mouth of Prince Anwar Shah Road in South Kolkata is buzzing with customers. Rabi Nandi, 54, a government bus driver, is finishing his meal of beef curry and rice when he decides to join our conversation. “I am a Hindu and I have been a regular customer here for more than 20 years. No one in my family likes having beef but I love the taste. Who is the government to dictate my eating habits?” asks Nandi.
Mumbai might be a city without beef but Kolkata certainly celebrates the flavourful meat. Or does it? Most Muslim-owned biriyani joints in the city sport the “No-beef” tag to “draw in more customers”. Even at the celebrated Nizams, the signature beef roll is no longer on the menu. “We have customers from all communities visiting us, we have to cater to their needs as well. That’s why we did away with beef items from our menu. Even a lot of Muslims don’t like having beef outside their homes,” says Anwar Hussain, a waiter at Nizams.
Most of the places that serve beef actually serve buffalo meat because it’s cheaper and cow slaughter is still frowned upon by most people. “There are a few places where you can get cow meat but they tend to be low-end eateries,” says Poorna Banerjee, a food blogger.
Rayaz Beef King is one such place. Here, plywood tables and wooden benches are the seating arrangement, most of the restaurant spills over to the pavement and none of the items on the menu cross the Rs 50 mark. But that doesn’t deter the customers. “We even have foreigners visiting our restaurant. In fact, one British gentleman was so impressed that he suggested that we name the restaurant Beef King after the famous chain in England. That’s how the restaurant got its name,” says Rayaz.
Even though the search for beef in Kolkata does not drag you into the entrails of a black market, a whiff of disapproval clings to it. “Of course, there is the religious issue but there is also a class thing. Even a number of rich Muslims don’t have beef because it’s considered a poor man’s meat,” says Banerjee.
It’s in the outskirts of the city, in places like Baruipur and Sonarpur, where you will find beef in abundance. “There, people would rather pay Rs 70 for a plate of beef biryani than Rs 100 for a plate of chicken biryani,” says Banerjee. At Asma Hotel, a 35-year-old institution adjacent to the bustling Baruipur station, the pricing is the USP. The flavourful beef biryani has customers making two-hour-long drives for a meal. “Most of our customers are daily labourers. We try to serve them good food for a reasonable price. You would be surprised to find that 80 per cent of our customers are Hindu,” says Masood Ali.
At Park Street and its surrounds, beef items are widely available. The beef steak at Olypub, one of the most popular watering holes of the city, runs on its reputation rather than anything else. “I find it rather chewy but I order it nonetheless. There is an element of glamour in ordering beef steak at Olypub,” says Arkadeep Sarkar, a music teacher with Ashok Hall High School. Sarkar, a Hindu Bengali, knows his parents don’t approve but they have never really stopped him. “As long as I don’t cook it at home. It’s like me consuming alcohol, they pretend that it never happens,” says Sarkar.