Leading a hand to mouth existence
By Shampa Dhar Kamath
29th July 2012 12:57 AM
Maybe we’re doing Oprah Winfrey an injustice. Maybe she was trying to pay Indians a compliment by refusing to believe that we “still” eat with our hands. After all, agents of the Western world, such as the British Etiquette Revival Society, believe that one of the things that sets humans “apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the ability to eat with cutlery”. And after hobnobbing with the Godrejs and Bachchans, being draped in silk by Tarun T and Sabyasachi, and dining off silver plates at the Somanys, the Grande Dame of Daytime TV probably didn’t want to think that her seemingly urbane hosts hadn’t strayed too far from the jungle.
Who’s to explain that most of us Indians—irrespective of wealth—are handier and happier at eating without cutlery? It’s not as if we can’t wield a fork and knife—many Indians most certainly can—but the rest of us eat far more elegantly with the organs of manipulation and sensation that we call fingers.
Our grandmothers used to emphasize the significance of feeling our food before tasting it. And there’s really heaps to feel. Recollect the crumbling texture of an idli as you pick it up to dip into the sambar. The escaping of the air as you poke a hole into a fluffy phulka, hot off the stove. A leg of tandoori chicken, dripping orange marination as you prepare to bite into it. The mustard paste of the hilsa that wraps itself around your fingers as you mix it with the long grains of basmati rice. Eating with our hands delights all our senses and adds a tactile dimension to the experience.
The very act of eating with the fingers is remarkable. The one-handed ritual of breaking a roti or rolling the rice into a ball is a hastàbhinaya that equals any Bharatnatyam mudra. Also, unlike language, dress and the food itself, it knows no state boundaries; the whole country excels in this hand-to-mouth exercise. From Kashmir to Kumarakom, Indians eat with their hands. In a skilful and clean fashion.
Cutlery, it must be admitted, is an invention that not all Indians have warmed up to. All of us can think of at least one relative, family friend or colleague who refuses to eat with his hands but wields his fork and knife in a way that makes people move swiftly out of the ambit of his weapons of mass digestion. In our family, thanks to a cutlery-crazy great-uncle, we’re all experts at dodging flying peas and diving to catch slippery boiled eggs and potatoes. Needless to say, the family dogs love the man. They’d be a sad and hungry lot if he were to forsake his tools and take to eating with his fingers.
Meanwhile, if the New York Times is to be believed, the practice of eating with one’s hands is spreading to Oprah’s country too. In many restaurants in the US, even the tony ones, chefs have begun inviting diners to dig into the food with their digits. And we’re not talking just about fries or burgers. New York chef Zakary Pelaccio, who believes touch is integral to good eating, has even named his new cookbook Eat With Your Hands after the practice.
Now all we need is for Oprah to read the book and make a visit to Ghana, where people are known to eat soup with their hands!
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