Erachi Ularthiyathu | Kerala Beef Fry
Beef. Curiously, it’s an ingredient that almost no outsider associates with Indian food, and yet, in India, it’s become a wildly controversial topic (and ingredient) precisely because so many people do eat it. These days there are numerous laws in place around the country that control or directly prohibit the slaughter, consumption, or export of beef. Only a handful of states (Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Manipur, and Mizoram) have no laws on the books curtailing the right to slaughter and/or consume beef. The history of the so-called beef bans across India is complicated and long and a subject that rightly deserves its own dedicated discussion. For a brief history of the issue in Indian politics, though, take a look here.
I didn’t grow up in Kerala, but my father’s family (though he spent most of his youth in Dar-es-salaam in the then Tanganyika), is from Kerala, a state that, among many other plaudits ("God’s Own Country" is most people’s favorite) has become renowned as the home to what most people simply call “Kerala beef fry.” Many beef aficionados in India think of the dish as the state’s culinary middle finger to the overreaching efforts of the BJP central government in trying to impose beef slaughter bans around the country. But of course the story is more complicated than that.
Though beef is banned in many parts of India, buffalo is still widely consumed without penalty. On many menus, eager to mark the distinction, restaurants have taken to using the word “buff” to indicate that they are serving buffalo and not cow.
Now while it’s certainly true that beef is also consumed in Kerala, buffalo meat is actually highly prized, and not considered in any way a second-string substitute for the former. Though most outsiders refer to this dish as “Kerala beef fry,” it’s instructive to note that in Kerala it's usually called “Erachi ularthiyathu”—“meat” fry, where erachi is the same word you’d use for any flesh. Even clam (kakka) meat is called kakka erachi. Buffalo meat is potherachi. Meat from a cow is kalaerachi.
I remember the rather gruesome Sunday buffalo slaughter scene in the village where my grandparents lived when I was a child. Buffaloes were slaughtered on a landing by the bridge leading to the large church in the middle of the village, and people would come by and pick up their buffalo meat after Mass.
I don’t want to weigh in on how common beef consumption is in Kerala these days since this has become a rather hot-button topic, and one which I’ll freely admit that I have little firsthand or recent experience of, but I will note that in my father’s family and in their community in the south of Kerala, buffalo meat has traditionally been favored over beef, and even fetches a higher price at market than beef.
But all of this is almost beside the point. It’s easy to get mired in the politics of this dish and forget that the main reason we should be talking about it is that it is absolutely delicious. Like almost any good dish, there are as many versions of erachi ularthiyathu as there are cooks who make it. My mother has adopted it as one of the few Kerala dishes that she cooks and her version is markedly different from my grandmother’s. I once ate a slightly profane (and equally heavenly) version in Thiruvananthapuram, cooked by a cook who was originally from Odisha. He added pandan leaves to the meat as it cooked, which gave it an incredible, sweet, floral note.
My own version isn’t exactly traditional either. Most of the versions I’ve eaten in my life tend to use a fairly lean cut of beef (or buffalo, as the case may be). While I’m fond of these, I’ve always been a sucker for the cheaper, fattier, cuts of most animals. I love the lush, rich texture that slowly cooked brisket has, and so I was eager to try it out here. The spice blend is mostly traditional, though I’ve tweaked the order of cooking a little bit to suit my personal taste.
Note: This recipe won’t give you a dry “fry,” in the manner of most versions of this dish. Instead, you’ll end up with burnished and spice-crusted chunks of incredibly tender beef in a luxuriously dense sauce.
2 lb beef (brisket)
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp jeera powder
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cardamom powder
¼ tsp powdered clove
½ tsp powdered mace
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fennel powder
2 medium red onions, peeled, trimmed, and thinly sliced through the root
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
2 branches curry leaves, stripped
¼ cup fresh, ungrated coconut cut into slivers about one inch long and an eighth of an inch thick.
Place the beef in a large saucepan with the spices, 2 cups water, and the salt and cook over low heat for 45 minutes.
After the meat has cooked for 45 minutes, take it out of its broth with a slotted spook and set aside. Cook down the broth at a quick simmer till it is reduced to just about a cup of liquid.
While the meat is cooking, in a deep-bottomed, high-sided pan, heat 4 tablespoons of coconut oil till it begins to shimmer.
Add the onions and fry, stirring often, till they have turned a mild red color—just ten minutes or so. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for a further five minutes, stirring often to make sure that they don’t scorch. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Add the beef and the reduced broth to the pan with the onion mixture and cook, uncovered, over low heat, till the beef is glossy with the pan juices and tender.
In a small pan, heat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil till shimmering. Add the curry leaves and step back to avoid the sputtering oil. Add the coconut chips and stir briefly till it smells toasty and is a light golden brown.
Add the oil, curry leaves, and coconut to the pan with the beef. Stir well to combine.
Serve hot with freshly made rose matta or “bullet” rice and kachiya moru.