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Steak-loving Tampa adapts cuisine for Bollywood guests

With perhaps tens of thousands of glamorous and famous Indian VIPs coming to Tampa for Bollywood, what’s a steak-loving Tampa to do?

This town has dozens of steak houses, and Tampa is the hometown of Outback Steakhouse and Bern’s Steak House is an institution known around the world as an iconic symbol of the old-school steak house.

Yet huge swaths of the Indian population are vegetarians, and the largest religion in India is Hinduism, which holds a powerful reverence for cows.

Not exactly the kind of place to celebrate the Porterhouse. But like a good host, Tampa restaurants — even steak houses — are adapting for their guests.

For sure, this well-known veneration of cows has become vastly oversimplified into an incorrect belief in the American culture that “Hindus worship cows.” Not true, said Pawan Rattan, whose father founded the major Hindu temple in Tampa, and is now its chairman. With Bollywood starting this week, he’s spent a lot of time lately educating people in Tampa about Hinduism.

“A common joke in India is that the No. 1 religion is Hinduism, and the No. 2 religion is Bollywood,” Rattan said. “Some people say No. 2 is actually cricket, but I think Bollywood is right up there.”

Like most things with religion, Rattan said the truth about Hindus and cows is complicated, and frequently in dispute, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

For one, unlike Christianity or Islam, there is no single authoritative Hinduism book or text that defines all the beliefs of the religion. Rather, there is a belief in one God, the God of all the universe, and a belief that anyone may find their own path to God – hence there are hundreds of different sects and methods and manifestations and experts and guides.

“In one sense, I can look across America at all the religions and say ‘You are all Hindu in a way,’” Rattan said. “It’s very democratic.”

Secondly, no ancient Hindu book says eating beef is an existential sin or crime against God as Christianity or Islam or Judaism might hold with adultery or stealing or eating unapproved foods. So, there’s no edict to cast judgment upon someone at the dinner table who is eating beef. Manners and politeness may call for common curtesy to avoid slicing into a filet next to a Hindu, but that’s another matter.

Rather, Hinduism’s respect for cows dates back more than 5,000 years. This comes partly out of practical reasons described by the earliest authors and teachers in the religion that cows are hugely useful for producing milk, butter, cheese and should be treated with respect. In many Hindu circles, this has become especially strident belief that interprets cows as sacred, so much so that they are allowed to roam free in streets of major Indian cities. That’s even been translated by outsiders as a worship of cows themselves.

The Hindu religion generally holds that God’s consciousness percolates through all of creation and into every living being, from humans to animals – lending a level of sacredness to all living things. Here’s where food comes in. This pervasive consciousness leads a great portion of Hindu believers to become vegetarian.

Rattan said people are sometimes shocked to hear he’s eaten at Bern’s probably a dozen times. He quickly adds that he ate vegetarian meals there.

Rather than cast aspersions on steak-eaters, Rattan said Hindus would — or should — say that each person is to make their own path to God and try to “do the right thing at that time, at that place,” so it’s not for a Hindu sitting at a table full of people to criticize the person next to them eating a filet mignon.

All this is no small matter, however, for some of the official venues for Bollywood parties here. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is host to a major party for Bollywood stars, which may attract 1,000 VIPs, and the signature restaurant in the complex is the Council Oak Steaks & Seafood restaurant.

Hard Rock spokeswoman Gina Morales said the overall complex’s kitchens will be cooking the food for the event. While the menu is still being finalized, they will make any adjustment necessary to please the guests. The menu for Friday’s VIP event includes appetizers of “Vegetarian Spring Rolls with Spicy Red Curry Mustard Sauce,” a buffet with “Fried Chicken marinated with coriander, cumin, garlic,” and other spices and “Slow Roasted Sea Bass with Fennel, Potatoes and Oven Cured Tomatoes.” Desserts include Baklava Rolls, Balushahi (similar to an American glazed doughnut) and “Coconut Burfi,” which is a cake patty made of coconut, sugar and milk.

As for Tampa’s most-iconic steak house, Bern’s, the restaurant includes several vegetarian items on the menu, and has hosted several of the early VIPs for Bollywood, notes spokeswoman Brooke Palmer. Bern’s won’t hurt for business either, because the restaurant is nearing capacity because the Bern’s Winefest is this coming weekend, and the whole of the SideBern’s restaurant will be booked for that event.

Given the diversity of humanity, Rattan said there’s likely to be a wide range of beliefs among those coming for Bollywood — from vegetarianism to veganism to meat eaters. With each passing generation in the United States, Indians tend to shed some of their parent’s and grandparent’s beliefs, and some Indian young people do eat beef regularly.

As for what restaurants here should do to attract the Bollywood business, “they should present themselves as a place to have a good meal,” Rattan said. “Of course there are fanatics in every religion, and of course there are some who say ‘You’re going to Hell’ for something or other. But restaurants should let it be known they have great food and wine. And maybe they’re famous for beef, but for those who do not take beef, there are equally good things to eat.”

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