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My thick slab of “New York” steak must weigh at least 14 ounces. The waitress tells me the meat is a classic strip, but its texture and lumpy, skirt-shaped appearance make me doubt that claim. Whatever the cut, the steak is surprisingly tender, even though its center is just a few degrees above raw. If the city’s tonier steakhouses were to offer such a misshapen beast, they’d still charge you $40 for the privilege of slicing into its buttery flesh.
Personally, I couldn’t be happier with my homely $20 steak. Tenderness aside, the meat packs a nightstick-like wallop, its heat more pronounced than even the thickest, black-asphalt layer of peppercorns pressed onto a steak au poivre. Barry Dindyal designed his steak to burn brilliant and bright. The meat (he says it’s usually strip but his supplier sent him some mysterious cut last week) marinates in ginger, garlic, coriander, chili, cumin, black pepper, clove, turmeric powder, cardamom, and fennel seeds before it’s skewered and cooked in a clay oven.
Dindyal is the chef and owner behind Fusion in Petworth. It’s an Indian restaurant. Or perhaps I should say, in deference to the millions of Hindus who’d rather starve than cut into cow flesh, it’s a modern Indian restaurant. “If I go back to my grandparents, they never ate beef. My mom never ate beef, but my father did,” says Dindyal, a practicing Hindu himself. “The younger generation tends to spread out some more and enjoy various meats.”
Perhaps. Despite Dindyal’s neat generational analysis, beef still doesn’t make many appearances on modern-day Indian menus. Beef sightings remain so rare, in fact, that when you do encounter a dish like Fusion’s “Tandoori New York Steak,” it takes on the air of spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Arkansas piney woods. In combing through various online menus for local Indian restaurants, I have so far found only four—including two of K.N. Vinod’s operations, Indique in Cleveland Park and Bombay Bistro in Rockville—that publicly claim to serve beef.
“Indians don’t really appreciate having beef on the menu,” says restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, a Hindu who claims never to have served beef at either of his high-end Indian operations, Rasika and the Bombay Club. “You’ll not see beef in Indian restaurants [back in India]. You’ll have riots.”
The taboo against beef, of course, has its roots in Hinduism, although technically the cow isn’t expressly “holy.” Scholars say some early Hindus actually ate the animal. But the cow’s practicality—its milk is a source of nourishment, its dung a source of energy, and, back in the day, its muscles a tool to plow the fields—eventually made eating the creature a poor economic decision.
Which is not to say the cow doesn’t play a significant role in Hindu life, literature, and scripture. There are all kinds of references to cow’s milk and ghee being used in religious ceremonies and food. Harivamsa texts (not that I’ve read the texts themselves but rather endless Web pages referring to the texts) repeatedly call Krishna the bala gopala, “the child who protects the cows,” apparently a reference to the deity’s early years with his foster parents, who were cow herders. Then there’s this mysterious quotation attributed to Krishna himself: “The piety that comes from bathing at holy places, the piety that comes from feeding brahmins, the piety that comes from giving generous charity, the piety that comes from serving Lord Hari, and the piety that comes from all vows and fasts, all austerities, circumambulating the earth, and speaking truthfully, as well as all the devas, always stay in the bodies of the cows.”
Tell you what: If I grew up Hindu, I wouldn’t eat a cow, either. (Thank God I grew up Methodist.)
Fusion’s Dindyal grew up in a Hindu family—but in Guyana, where the sizable Indian population is a legacy of the British imperial rulers who shipped indentured laborers to South America and the Caribbean. Hinduism assumed its own form in the New World. “I’m a Hindu, too, but I grew up in a culture where you’d eat anything that [turned] up on the table,” Dindyal tells me.
This might explain Dindyal’s willingness to feature beef on his menu, but only if you ignore one piece of practical information: His restaurant doesn’t cater to Indians. Fusion’s Petworth neighborhood is still majority black, although gentrifiers and developers have been making a move on its real estate. “Most of my clientele here, 95 percent, are Americans. I just get a few Indians here. Maybe six people a month are Indians,” he says. “And some people ask for beef, like a beef curry or something like that.”
Shahjahan Mia, the owner of Taj of India in Georgetown, can relate. The humanity that crowds the neighborhood’s boutiques and restaurants leans more blue blood than Brahmin. Not long after Mia opened Taj in 2002, he started hearing calls for beef, America’s favorite meat to love and fear. The decision to finally add it to the menu wasn’t too difficult for the owner. He’s a Muslim from Kolkata. “Except for pork,” Mia says, “I eat everything else.”
I have to say, Taj of India is the most beef-friendly Subcontinental restaurant I’ve ever seen. Almost every one of Taj’s lamb specialties can be prepared with beef, including rogan josh, a typically velvety dish that I automatically associate with the barnyardy young sheep. Two colleagues and I found ourselves around a table at the Taj last week getting the stink-eye from a neighboring diner as we went on a beef binge. We ordered beef palak (weirdly dehydrated pieces of beef buried in a spinach-tomato sauce), beef rogan josh (chewy chunks of beef in a nutty, surprisingly fiery curry), and beef curry (moist pieces of beef in a thin, fairly wan tomato-based curry). I haven’t felt this self-conscious about ordering meat since working with an office full of vegetarians.
Despite the bebe and Benetton ambiance in G-town, diners still favor lamb to beef 3 to 1 at Taj of India, Mia says. I’m sure he’d like to see those numbers flip. Twice during our phone chat, he mentions that beef is cheaper than lamb.
It’s still somewhat of a mystery to me why more Indian restaurants in America don’t feature beef. We’re a predominantly Christian country that has demonstrated a taste for Subcontinental cooking. Many Indian cookbooks, including the latest by local author Monica Bhide, feature beef recipes—a fact that says something about the growing acceptance of the meat in the country’s cooking. (Bhide’s excuse for throwing beef into her book Modern Spice: “I lived in a Catholic convent in the Southern part of India where they served beef a lot.”)
I put the beef question to Bajaj, the city’s most recognizable Indian restaurateur. He had a logical answer: “A lot of chefs don’t eat beef, Indian chefs,” Bajaj says, “because we didn’t grow up eating beef.”
But that won’t necessarily be true of the next generation of Indian-American chefs. Like the Guyana-born Dindyal, they’ll have grown up far removed from Subcontinental Hindu culinary culture—far enough to develop their own thoughts about the meat. Which means Fusion’s pepper steak may not be unique for long.
Fusion, 4815 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 726-2210