Indian food needs a couple of whole blogs. But I can advance that it made my eyes tear, my nose run (a marathon) and my palate blow out! But, again, it was only at the very beginning. Well, and recurrently every time I have spicy food now!
I have to say the title (Eating With Your Hands) is imprecise. It should read ‘Eating With Your Right Hand’, since that is the one you have to use when eating. You must put to work your left hand only to serve yourself when the courses are not served by the host or to grab the glass when you want to drink.
Indians eat with their hands because it gives you a connection with the food. Eating nourishes the mind, intellect and spirit. There’s a tactile dimension added to the eating process. Either that or, again, it’s a matter of saving on cutlery! Moreover, if you eat off a banana leaf (that deserves another entire blog) trying to use a fork and knife would shred your ‘plate’.
When I arrived, exhausted as I was, I was presented with the Indian delicacies that they had for lunch that day. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember what it was, but I’m sure it was hot! But what was my surprise that they used no tableware! For all that they seemed so skillful and neat.
And here is when I realised things in India were going to be a little messy and complicated. It’s not that I found a squeamishness in being that intimate with my food; it’s just that I wasn’t familiar with the technique and I didn’t want to end with curry juices running down to my elbow!
In fact, if you look at the bright side, it’s like forgetting your elementary table training and recapturing some of the early childhood joy of playing with food.
Once more, my friend taught me how to do it so that I didn’t make a fool of myself whenever I got invited somewhere; so that I didn’t seem a clueless foreigner and the host and the rest of the commensals thought that there were several pets in India who knew better! I mean, even little children could do it better than me!
There are two variants to the techniques: with and without chapatti.
With a chapatti it’s much easier (at least once you get the piece to eat torn from the rest of it). The middle finger is pressed down to hold the crepe down and the forefinger and thumb are used to grip and separate a small part. And with it you scoop whatever you are struggling to pick.
In the south, where I was, they eat lots more rice and enjoy very soupy curries. They use the rice to soak the sauces. First you have to mix (with all your four fingers and your thumb) a bit of rice and whatever else you are eating (curry, dal, rasam, pickle, meat,…) on the plate to make a little ball. Then with the four fingers acting as a spoon, gather the balled up food onto the tips of your fingers using your thumb. Bring it up to your mouth with a twist of your wrist till your finger nails are almost touching your lower lip. Place the thumb behind the food and catapult the food into your mouth.
With this explanation and a meal or two practicing, you’ll be eating like a native.
Eating with your fingers is a cultural experience everyone should go through while visiting India. So, if you are heading for India, have a look at this video and also practice a polite way of saying you don’t want to eat any more since your hosts will serve you more without warning and will egg you on to eat more and more and more and…