Someone once said that eating with a knife and fork is like taking a shower with a raincoat. As a New Yorker, raised on a strong knife and fork curriculum, I’ve found it hard to embrace the full-hand feast. Sure, I’ll scoop a chapati full of curry, or tear and eat a dosa, but I’ve envied the abandon with which I’ve seen locals mix rice and curries together like a child would finger-paint and dop breads with flavors like an impressionist putting his final touches on a canvas.
This morning, in the privacy of the empty hotel we’re staying at, the chef served our breakfast: idiyappam, noodle-like rice cakes, topped with coconut and brought to life with a curry. The Westerner in me figured I should fork it, for fear of spillage and making a fool of myself. Slowly, Blair and I took our feast with full-fingered abandon. There’s something that seems quite magical (and even naughty and indulgent) about eating with a full-hand, pinching flavors together, letting curry run over your knuckles and under your nails.
I have to say — I think it’s more delicious and more fun. Maybe it’s the primal hand to mouth connection, the bouquet of flavors in the palm of my hand, or the momentum and free flow that’s created without the structure of a fork and knife.
It reminds me of my painting days in high-school, where I moved from meticulous color mixing on a palette to squeezing the colors onto the canvas and blending them there with my hands, and from small, planned brush strokes to broad, spontaneous lines of color, using fingers, sticks and feathers. I loved coming home, my hands cracked and colorful, as it always reminded me of the five year old version of myself, grinning and speckled with pigments.
While food may be art, the way we consume and experience it is what gives it the power to transform and satisfy. I tend to think of the artfulness of food being in its presentation, color or smell, as well as in its service and environment — and I forget about how I actually consume and engage, not just experience. If everything in India is about coming from the heart, eating with the hand is like eating with the heart… And a daily practice I could get used to.