May 4, 2014

Don't feel ashamed. Eat with your hands

 'Eating food with your hands not only feeds the body but also the mind and the spirit'

Eating with hands? Most educated and upward mobile Indians would scoff at the very idea. In fact, I know a lot of educated Indians who would shift seat on a dining table if they see someone eating with hands. That's what it takes to demonstrate that you are an educated liberal, who can't tolerate the ruffians eating with hands. In other words, eating with fork and knife (or chopsticks) is simply a demonstration of how 'civilized' you are. So when a newspaper like New York Times does a feature entitled:'Mind Your Manners: Eat with your hands' (NYT Jan 17, 2012. it makes me realise that I am not the only one who is uncivilized.

It is so heartening to know that writer Amitav Gosh doesn't go to Indian restaurants in London and New York because they discourage eating with hands. New York Times quotes a cookbook writer and cooking teacher Mrs Sahni saying: "Eating with hands evokes great emotions. It kindles something very warm and gentle and caressing. Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon."  

So when did I start picking up the weapons. Let me remember. Well, true to what Lord Macaulay had said (and we implemented) I remember the days when I joined Sainik School Kapurthala. In this boarding school  from day one I was taught to use fork and knife, and even had to roll chapati and dip it in the bowl of Dal before taking a bite. You couldn't eat chapati the way you normally do at home. I guess this was part of the boarding school etiquette or rituals that was actually the left over of the British legacy. So what I was taught in my school did stay with me. But Still I tried to make my own adjustments. 

Talking about the British legacy, here is another lost tradition that I feel very sad about. When I see Indians using a fork and knife, very carefully peeling and splitting mangoes into small pieces that they can pick with a fork, I feel very disappointed. When I take the mango kernel in my hands and devour it the way I love, I see people frowning at me. This reminds of what the late Dr M S Randhawa had written.  

The British also tried to distort the name for mango, the king of fruits. Dr Randhawa once wrote that the British did not saviour the site of Indians squatting on the floor and sucking mangoes, with the juice flowing down their elbows. They often referred it to as the 'bathroom fruit.' And they would ensure that the Indian staff in their houses (during the British Raj) would eat mangoes only in the bathroom. (Read my earlier blog post: Coarse cereals should be called Nutri-cereals.

Why blame the British, the modern Indian also hates the site of people squatting and sucking mangoes. This is perhaps the reason why the sucking varieties of mangoes have disappeared from the market.   

While the north Indians have certainly become modern (or at least they want to look modern, educated and ready to join the elite club) I still find the people living in eastern and southern India to be proud of their traditional culinary habits. Ask for a meal, and a range of food products are served on a banana leaf. It is so refreshing to see the south Indians using hands, and the restaurants providing a special corner for hand wash. My friends Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and C Jayakumar, Usha S and Sridhar R from the voluntary group Thanal in Kerala have always been happy using heir hands while eating. Sometimes when I ask for a spoon, they really have to get up from the table to fetch one for me. Elsewhere too I find most of my friends are very comfortable using their hands to eat.   

Once I was at a dinner with the famous Indian scientist Dr M S Swaminathan at his home in Chennai. Seeing Dr Swaminathan using his hands freely, dipping it in rice and sambar, I asked him what he thought about eating with hands. He had a lot to tell, and so did I. We had a number of stories to share and regale, about how some distinguished people felt embarrassed to see us eating with hands, but I still remember Dr Swaminathan telling me that eating with fingers makes you mentally sharp and intelligent. Of course he didn't have any empirical evidence to back up the claim, but he did tell me that the Nobel Laureate the late Dr C V Raman used to think so. 

Well, talking about fork and knife I still don't understand why do some people use fork instead of a spoon while eating rice? Isn't it time that we discard the illusionary robe of modernity that we wear and get back to the romance of food? Come on, don't feel ashamed. The next time you see someone eating with fork and knife, pick up the courage to say: Excuse me, Would you mind your Manners. #    

Further reading: Eating with hands: Connecting food to the soul by Anuradha Gupta


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I didn't know people ate with their hands until I visited with gujarati friends and in seeing, I felt comfortable as a human being. It felt as though there was no judging or rules, just simply being relaxed in eating. It seemed part of being truly welcome in their home. It also made food not seem distance but natural, but something that simply belongs to you. Even in writing that, it makes me realize that forks and knives are about more than class and rules, but actually separate us from nature and an intimate daily experience of being part of it. It's akin to substituting the bottle for breast feeding, pulling people away from mother earth and our natural desire to touch and feed from her. I never realized until just now how profound the division is, and the loss. People are being robbed of pleasure, of being at home with each other, of being humans who are part of nature.

All best wishes,

Ananthoo said...

iam told, ayurveda says, teh digestion starts from hand!
am sure it is a better habit although a western influence would deny its place:-)
even JC Kumarappa commented about that long back and asked how can one expect forks to be cleaned? he asked if any one wold patiently clean all the spaces between those fork fingers? and went on to argue how can one expect a spoon and fork to be cleaner and safer than my own hands! i accept that logic fully and so from hygienic angle too hands win hands down!
thanks for bringing this up Devinderji!

Avinash said...

Beautiful article ! It feels like a 'reset' button has been pressed somewhere inside me :-)

Rajesh said...

Reminds me of an interesting observation Sridhar made about those who are not used to eating with hands trying that. He says that it resembles the action of a crane/earth mover, the jcb in common parlance :)
Whether or not it contributes to brain development due to better psycho motor abilities, it does makes the food tastier and unless I lick my finger after a meal, it doesn't give a feeling of closure.

hkpt said...

Given the fast food culture of eating fried beef and fried chicken in USA, many Americans eat their food with hands and do not wash their hands either before or after eating. When this same food is glazed with sauces, they are also usually found licking the sauces with their fingers. So, this NYT article by the McCaulite Indian is an exercise in cultural chest thumping that stands apart from scientific merits and true practices.

I would treat the reinvented urban Indian fascination for western eating etiquette as another example of a class order that distinguishes itself with cultural symbols. The affluent in every society have to distinguish their power with new symbolism. An example of this can can be see in the European master paintings from the midieval and victorian ages. When food was scarce and the commoners were toiling in the open, a fair skin and plump (well fed) figure was the ideal physique worthy of paintings. Fast forward to mid 20th century, where food became plenty and most people are doing blue collar or white collar jobs in shaded buildings. The notion of an ideal physique shifted to a skinny profiles with tanned skin tones that can only be purchased in sunny destinations like Hawaii, Bahamas and Bali.