If you’re from India, it isn’t uncommon to be asked in the West if you’re vegetarian. And there’s a reason for that: India has more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined, and the lowest per capita meat consumption of all nations, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. But visit the southern Indian state of Telangana, and you wouldn’t know it.
Here, you’ll see restaurants everywhere selling meaty biryani and kebabs. Surprised? Don’t be. Telangana, India’s youngest state — it was carved out of the larger Andhra Pradesh in 2014 after years of struggle for separate statehood — is also the most meat-happy in the country. According to a 2017 study from India’s National Academy of Agricultural Research Management …
98.8 percent of Telangana’s population eats meat — a higher fraction than famously meat-loving countries like the U.S. or Australia.
That number highlights a curious contradiction about India: Even with an estimated 400 million vegetarians, the country is primarily meat-eating, with at least 71 percent of its population consuming some form of meat, according to a 2014 survey by the Registrar General of India. By comparison, 95 percent of Americans eat meat, as do 88.8 percent of Australians.
It’s easy to assume that Telangana’s high meat-eating population might be a function of religion: Upper-caste Hindus are predominantly vegetarian, while that equation flips with Muslims and Christians in India. But that assumption is also wrong. Telangana’s population of 35 million people is 85 percent Hindu, with just 12 percent of the population identifying as Muslim and 1.3 percent as Christian. That’s a higher fraction of Hindus — and a lower percentage of Muslims and Christians — than the national average in India.
“Our study has shown the non-vegetarian population is high across all religious groups,” says Sanjiv Kumar, a scientist with the NAARM. “There is no religious taboo associated with these non-vegetarian items.”
Instead, the reasons for Telangana’s preference for meat are different, according to experts and observers. Principally, says Kumar, this has to do with the availability of livestock in the state.
Before it was divided in 2014, Andhra Pradesh contributed 40 percent of India’s sheep, and Telangana today has one-fifth of the country’s sheep population, he says.
There’s also the influence of history, says Ammar Kanchwala, a popular food blogger based in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana. “Hyderabad has had an influence of some Muslim kings in the past when they ruled the state,” he says. “That is possibly another reason for the huge non-vegetarian food consumption.” Muslim Nizams controlled the region for more than 200 years, until 1948. Nowadays, Hyderabad is among India’s preeminent information technology hubs, attracting youth from all parts of India as well as a strong expatriate population.
To be sure, the per capita carbon footprint associated with meat consumption is likely much lower in Telangana than in the U.S., Argentina or Australia. That’s because the actual quantities of meat consumed here are lower. In the United States, the average resident eats about 265 pounds of meat per year, as per the Department of Agriculture. In the U.K., that number stands at 187 pounds per person, per year. In Telangana, by contrast, that figure is just 36.3 pounds — just over 3 pounds per month, according to the 2017 study — which is still four times India’s average per capita yearly consumption of meat. But that’s not just about the meat: Indian consumption across all food groups is much smaller than in the West — just visit a Starbucks in India to see the size of the coffee the average Indian consumes.
And in Telangana, Kanchwala says, restaurants are constantly working on improving the meat offerings on their menus to cater to a rising demand, beyond the traditional favorites of the region — in addition to kebabs and biryani, do try haleem, a stew of meat and lentils, if you visit.
So the next time you think about checking with an Indian if they’re vegetarian, ask first if they’re from Telangana.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.