I’m here in India and was trying to eat vegan for fun recently, but it was really hard to find dishes without milk. That experiment got me thinking about why milk is so popular, yet most Indians don’t eat beef?
Only 1 in 13 Indians eat beef, because it violates their religion whether Hindu (81% of Indians), Jain, Buddhist, or Sikh. But Indians is the largest consumer of milk in the world and milk is seen as a representation of the motherly love of the gods, as well as a vital source of nutrients.
The religions of India like Hinduism have many regional differences, similar to Christianity, so while it’s tempting to say that milk is viewed the same by all Indians, it really does vary based on where you are in India and who you are with.
Plus, other religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism have their own reasons for not eating beef.
But it is accurate to say that most Indians don’t eat beef and most drink a LOT of milk. Why is that? Well, let’s quickly dive into the reasons why so you can better understand this diverse culture if you’re planning a trip to this beautiful country.
Why Isn’t Beef Allowed in Hinduism?
Hindus consider the cow sacred and there are references in ancient spiritual texts like the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda to protecting them. The ancient health system Ayurveda and the caste system also state that eating meat will make you feel dull and sleepy (post-lunch nap anyone?), which is acceptable only for the lower classes.
In Hinduism, it’s commonly thought that some people are reincarnated as cows.
But practically speaking, put yourself into the shoes of a farmer living in a small village in India. Your cow was your livelihood, her milk kept you and your family alive over many years. You could sell her milk and make a living. So of course, your cow is going to be very important to you.
Plus, in the same way that a dog develops affection for his family, a cow does the same.
On one video I posted an Indian viewer stated, that cows cry if someone dies in the family and show maternal love for their owners, similar to a dog.
When you consider that, it makes it easier to understand why so many Indians are repulsed by the idea of eating beef, even if you can’t understand the belief in reincarnation.
Gandhi had a big influence on Indian culture as well, and he was a big fan of cows. He was a devoted vegetarian his whole life, and if you read his autobiography can learn all about the different dietary experiments he tried (he swore goat milk and fasting were the key to health) as he sought to become enlightened and work more effectively.
Gandhi referenced the first consecrated king in legends, King Prithu, who chased a goddess in the form of a cow who eventually let herself be milked. This symbolized how natures bounty would feed the people, similar to how some people refer to and feel comforted by the concept of Mother Earth.
“Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when alive.”Mahatma Gandhi
But eating beef and slaughtering cows has become a politicized and divisive issue in India… since it’s an indication of the divide between Hindus and Muslims.
Muslims do eat cows, so some traditional Hindus view this practice as evil and there is a lot of conflict around it. In some places, eating beef or slaughtering cows is even illegal.
Is Eating Beef Illegal in India?
In 2017, Indian introduced a beef ban, making it illegal to buy and sell cows to be slaughtered. 20 states in India enforce the ban, while 9 do not.
Eating beef is not illegal in most places though. However, you will NOT be able to find it in many places.
If you’re a traveler and craving some beef, it is a culturally accepted dish in:
- Meghalaya and other Northeastern states
Goa has a Portuguese history and many of the dishes are influenced by this. With the high volume of tourists and a significant portion of Christians and Muslims, beef is more accepted here and found on some menus.
Eating beef has been done for generations in Kerala, which has one of the largest percentages of Christians in India. I had some beef curry at a restaurant on the water in Cochin and it was a beautiful delicious setting.
In other places, “beef” is available but it is buffalo meat.
In general for tourists, it’s best to just avoid eating beef (except in the states mentioned above), and eat what most people eat here.
You can find plenty of chicken burgers, something called a “tower burger” which is basically like the double cheese burger, although it could include 3 or more patties.
You can also find plenty of veggie burgers that are actually pretty delicious. There’s a mushroom tofu burger at a local restaurant here, and when I’m having a craving for beef, I go have one of these and it does the trick.
You can also find plenty of other meats, especially in North India like mutton, goat, and eggs.
Why Can Hindus Drink Milk?
In Hindu beliefs, milk is the symbolic representation of maternal or godly love. The cow is an animal that offers knowledge, and the milk represents that. Nutritionally, milk has been called a complete food with vital proteins as well as nutrients like calcium, Vitamin B 12, and magnesium.
India is the largest consumer of dairy in the world, drinking 77.7 million metric tons in 2019. It’s also the world’s largest producer. India produces 140 million metric tons of milk each year, which is 50% more than the US, the second largest producer. So many people’s lifestyle relies on cows.
Where I live every day you can see men driving scooters with a large metal container of fresh milk on the back. They go from door to door, honking their horn as family members come out with a jug for today’s milk.
Cheese and curd (yogurt) are eaten at many meals. Buttermilk calms the stomach and is often served in the summer time (which is almost all the time where I live.
Ghee, or clarified butter, has omega-3 fatty acids and is thought to be healthy or even a superfood.
You can find plenty of other diary dishes like:
- Paneer: cheese
- Channa: cottage cheese
- Khoa: Dried whole milk for desserts like laddus
- Dahi: Yogurt or curd
- Shrikhand: Strained yogurt with sugar, sometimes flavored with saffron
- Kheer: A pudding with milk, sugar and rice
- Kulfi: Traditional Indian ice cream
For spiritual purposes, Milk is poured on Shiva lingams, nandis (bull) and offered to the gods during puja (prayer) and festivals.
The Best Indian Dishes With Milk
If you’re looking for some inspiration about what to eat while you’re traveling India or at your local Indian restaurant, here are some of my favorite dishes:
- Paneer Butter Masala: Cheese marinated in a spicy tomato based gravy that is chock full of spices and creamy.
- Palak Paneer: Cheese in a savory spinach sauce (palak means spinach). Pour over basmati rice, naan bread or chapati.
- Chicken Tikka Masala: Roasted chunks of chicken marinated in a tomato based spiced sauce with plenty of cream. This is one of the most popular Indian dishes overseas.
- Butter Chicken (Murg Makhani): Similar to chicken tikka masala, but there is less tomato in butter chicken and it’s more creamy.
- Tandoori Chicken: Roasted chicken that has been marinated with spices and yogurt in a clay oven (some call it a Tandoori oven).
Indians lead the world in drinking milk, yet very few eat beef, and this all stems from religious tradition of loving, respecting and sometimes worshiping cows. Even aside from this, practically speaking cows provide milk which is a nourishing ingredient in many dishes as well as a source of livelihood for many Indians.
For more, I wrote an extensive article further answering the question: Do People Eat Beef in India?