EPICURIOUS: THE AGE OF THE BEETROOT

October 06, 2019

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When I first heard about the efforts to create artificial meat a couple of years ago, I was revolted by the very idea. But sooner than I had expected, ‘non-meat meat’ started appearing on the menus of many restaurants. It’s not just restaurants; according to one UK university press release, its cafeterias will no longer serve meat, but will stick to a strictly vegetarian menu.

This is bad news for Pakistanis, especially Lahori carnivores. Several years ago, I was asked by the acclaimed novelist Bapsi Sidwa to write the food chapter for an anthology on Lahore. I recall observing that if a vegetarian were to visit the city, he or she might die of starvation without getting much sympathy.

So what is it about meat that has given rise to these recent calls to ban it? The attack comes from many sides. First, there are the environmentalists who point out that the millions of cows around the world emit thousands of tonnes of methane every day via their flatulence. This contributes to global warming. The vast area they need to graze could be better utilised to plant trees and plants that would absorb carbon dioxide. Medical evidence damning the excessive intake of meat is mounting. Animal rights activists assert that animals are badly treated from birth to slaughter.

Is it time to try ‘non-meat meat’ for the sake of the environment?

There is much truth to all these opinions, but try telling this to a butcher in Gowalmandi (Lahore). In England, farmers fear being forced to reduce the size of their herds. As it is, Brexit threatens their livelihood as meat exports to Europe might attract duties of 40 percent, thus reducing demand.

So what exactly is the hype about? Thus far, scientists have been able to produce mincemeat from beetroots, which is then used to make burgers. I was pretty sceptical until my son Shakir informed me that he had tried the future — and it tasted pretty good. My nine-year-old grandson Sulli insisted that he couldn’t tell a veggie burger apart from a real one.

I resisted trying this abomination until my wife and I walked into a pub for a quick meal. Spotting a veggie burger, she ordered one and pronounced it was very good. With nowhere to hide from progress, I took a bite and, readers, I have to confess that it was juicy and tender. Had I been given one without being told it was not the genuine article, I would never have guessed.

Thus far, larger cuts have been difficult to replicate in the lab, but given the stakes (no pun intended), it’s only a matter of time before the pepper steak you order turns out to be reconstituted beetroot. Meanwhile, vegetarians seem to be conquering all before them. Cookbooks are full of veggie recipes and vegans can bore you to death with monologues about the evils of eating meat.

A combination of eco-warriors and animal rights activists can be highly effective in terms of wielding political pressure. In California a decade or so ago, pate de foie gras, or goose liver pate, was banned due to the concern of bleeding-heart types who deplored the force-feeding of geese to induce their livers to grow to abnormal size. Never mind that the unctuous paste, produced largely in France, yielded some of the best starters known to man when it was spread over hot buttered toast. But Californians are now denied this delicacy.

Certainly, animals ought to be better treated, but to deny us choice is arbitrary and unfair. However, in the West, the eco lobby has grown very powerful and there is a real risk of meat being removed from restaurant menus in the short- to medium-term. I fear, the Age of the Beetroot is upon us.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 6th, 2019