'Eating food with your hands not only feeds the body but also the mind and the spirit'www.foodenthusiastsofdelhi.com
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. http://nyti.ms/1horkOH) 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