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Hard to digest

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

The web of food debates.

One of the many benefits of being irreligious is that your food choices aren’t determined by ancient diktats laid down by prophets, saints and sundry other figures whom you have never met. As someone with no dietary restrictions (other than those brought on by personal revulsion — fermented mare’s milk and grilled grasshoppers being definite no-nos) it’s with a deep sense of wonder that I read news items about food-related fussiness. Like the impending beef ban in Karnataka (and at the Commonwealth Games) and the continuing brouhaha over a French fast-food restaurant’s decision to serve a halal-only menu.

“Research shows that cow pee has proven medicinal benefits.” “Chickens, pigs and goats take to the street demanding equal rights.” Those are just two among the hundreds of Tweets doing the rounds following the Karnataka beef ban, but a longer and more entertaining discussion is raging on an Express Buzz article (http://tinyurl.com/y9dzuf5). “Why Jehadi Muslims and fanatic Christians love cow meat though cow meat is proved to cause heart disease & mad disease [sic]?” wonders one gentleman, before adeptly answering his own question. “Since Hindus love cow as dearly as their mother or gowmatha, these terrorists want to hurt sentiments and get heaven with virgins and wine as preached by their terror manuals. But why not start with eating your own mothers [sic] meat first?” This remarkable display of stream-of-consciousness gets a prompt response from another commenter. “Banning cow slaughter may be kind, but one wonders whether Hinduism attaches too much importance to cows, and less to other fellow human beings, given its institutionalised discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.”

While the beef ban will (forcibly) impact the eating habits of people all across the state, in France there’s a somewhat silly debate raging over the menu of a single restaurant. When the mayor of a town called Roubaix (with a 50 per cent Muslim population) protested the “halal” burger in the restaurant chain Quick, it opened an old can of worms: the debate about whether the demands of a very vocal minority community should be allowed to ride roughshod over the constitution of a country, and whether it’s possible for diet to be used as an instrument for gradual religious conversion. On the News Real blog (http://tinyurl.com/ya7q2zt), John Work makes the provocative claim — without offering any substantiation — that some of the surtax charged on halal food goes towards the construction of mosques and the promotion of Islam. “The French are now paying taxes used to ensure their eventual servitude to Muslim masters.”

But the real issue here is more complex, touching on misconceptions surrounding what “halal” is. “The only scenario where the mayor’s ridiculous ranting would make sense,” says Aisha Gawad in a piece titled “WTFatwa: Can I Get Fries With That Racism?” on the Elan magazine website (http://tinyurl.com/ybn62lr), “is if the so-called ‘halalburger’ was infused with a magic ‘Muslim convert’ potion and if it cost non-Muslim patrons more to purchase it. But it’s not like this food will suddenly taste ‘Muslim’.” The comments about cultural ignorance are equally hard-hitting. “I know a paranoid Frenchman,” says one, “who was under the impression that halal meat comes from Muslim chickens as opposed to their Christian chickens!” (Cluck cluck, goes the impartial observer.)

“Would we call it discrimination against Egyptians if an Italian restaurant in Cairo sold nothing but pasta and pizza?” asks a writer on Bikya Masr (http://tinyurl.com/y88o558). But my favourite comment on the issue - because it comes from someone who appears to really care about food — is this conversation-ender from the Now Public blog (http://tinyurl.com/ydbvaxp): “What’s wrong with all of you anyway? What kind of moron goes to France and eats... a burger?!”

[Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer]

First Published: Sat, March 27 2010. 00:28 IST
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