A HAND-TO-MOUTH EXISTENCE!

People who have, for long, seen me eat, tell me how my (admittedly) frog-eyes widen in greed at the sight of food, and how I pounce on my plate like a long-deprived hound in the estates of Sir Charles Baskerville.

I, allegedly, follow the course of food with my eyes, like a pornographer’s camera focused on certain parts of human (and in some cases, animal) anatomy. I know nothing about this comparison (innocent that I am), but it sounds unwarranted and unsavory, to say the least.

According to some people, when a waiter in a Chinese restaurant comes in from the kitchen bearing Singapore rice noodles, my head moves from the direction of the kitchen and seamlessly comes towards self and occupied table. Then, as the waiter lifts up a large forkful of steaming noodles up towards the ceiling and then gently deposits it on the plate, my head describes a harmonic movement in the vertical axis. As the food comes closer, my eyes then telescope out of their sockets and then, as the forkful of grub comes up to the mouth, my head meets it halfway with a sharp, leonine movement. Whoosh! The fork is empty, as mandible engages maxilla. In the meanwhile, all conversation has been abruptly amputated.

Now, this is pure allegation, not to say libelous. I am greedy, but not really in the class of a wolfish predator. And certainly several classes above the gentlemen who, after dinner at a party, exhibit the pathological anatomy of their molar teeth while picking up the entangled pieces of meat and fiber from between them. They then, invariably, expect to shake your hand goodbye. So, the moment I see these guys beginning their ‘picking stuff for my doggy-bag’ exercise, I retreat. I usually introduce someone I sorely dislike to them, before waving goodbye from a safe six-feet distance: “Bye, it was a delight to see you (eat)!”

hand-eating.jpg

There are certain other types of human eating patterns that are even more remarkable than mine. Back in college, I had a colleague called Subramanian who used to eat with his hands, as most Indians (unlike me) do. During his meal, Subramanian would keep moving his head from Mecca to Malaysia, talking about this or that, with an occasional foray in the general direction from Toronto to Tuticorin. By the time he would finish, a full quarter of his portion would be displayed around his lips and chin, sometimes extending as far as his neck, and on occasion people have noticed a grain or two of boiled rice on an eyebrow or cephalad.

Now, if you have ever seen the likes of Subramanian, you would show me some respect when I eat. You will never see me waste food around my mouth. A few bits and pieces of beans, rice or a drop of gravy would tend to decorate the table mat around my plate, but I have to give them this much respect and liberty, don’t I? Especially when you expect me to regale you with tall tales and hilarious jokes while you tenderly scratch and stroke your own food, enough to rouse Queen Victoria from her grave and clap in polite approval!? Ungrateful, wouldn’t you say, if people criticise my eating and call it messy?

hand-eater.jpg

I have noticed this tendency to spread the gravy around most marked in South Indians, especially Tamil people. Prone to taking in rice mixed with runny rasam, sambhar, or yoghurt (called moru), the liquid dribbles up from the Tamilian’s cultured hand and crawls up to the elbow before an expert dart of the tongue kills any chance of it traveling the long way to the mouth. Now, you will never see me do this. Never. For I am not your manual South Indian rice eater. I am fully automatic, a modern eating machine. Never known to be mealy-mouthed.

Yes, I have been said to resemble Mr. Steptoe of PG Wodehouse. The former was an American businessman who, according to the author, was known to elicit a certain degree of noise from mashed potatoes, but was at his best when dealing with crispy potato wafers. But, take my word for it; this is pure jealousy of people who can’t stand seeing me enjoying a spare meal.

There are people who look like they are suffering from acute renal colic when chewing a hamburger or footlong. I am, the grapevine says, going to be appointed the brand ambassador of this special Indian minority group. Like a group of Rational Indians.

Here is a primer on how to eat in India.

If you want to enjoy Indian food, you must get intimate and physical, niceties be damned. Even historic figures like Gandhi have relished the messy, organic and orgasmic slurping of ripe mangoes squeezed with one’s bare hands, while panting desperately for breath. No, no British knives and forks for the Gandhian mangoes!
Do you gross out the world when you carry your eating culture out?

19 responses to “A HAND-TO-MOUTH EXISTENCE!

  1. Rambodoc: Without going into my personal opinions of how unappetising and puke-inducing it is to watch someone licking sambar off his elbows (!) while eating his saapad, I should just say the last bit of the link to a primer on eating in India reminded me of this post (of course, you too shall have to read till the end to see why this needed your kind attention):

    http://laviequotidienne.wordpress.com/2007/04/23/redux-the-global-warming-band-wagon/

    Thanks. 🙂

    Thanks for the link, Shefaly.

  2. Very nice description, rambodoc.
    There are varieties of mangoes which can be eaten only by squeezing with one’s bare hands. They are too soft to be eaten by any other way.
    The roti can only be enjoyed when you make a cone out of it and fill in the curry. I have seen some foreigners try their knives and forks on the poor thing and ultimately they had to stoop to the desi style.
    I am amazed to see people using the chopsticks while eating noodles, I stick to the Indian style of eating noodles with a fork .
    If you know what a Gol Gappa is try eating it any other way, than by bare hands. A poor Londoner tried breaking into two and ended up messing his suit in the process.

    Prerna,
    I love practising my chopstick skills, basic though they are, but people can drink soup with chopsticks, apart from eating rice!

  3. Urggh.. Rambodoc, i was just having my morning bowl of cheerios and milk, and couldnt finish eating, thanks to your unappetizing comments on elbow licking. 😉
    I cant imagine relishing a ripe mango or macher jhol and rice without using my fingers, I love sampling different cuisines and sometimes crave for street foods (to Shefaly’s dismay) but am put off by bad eating habits (especially public demonstration of picking at ones teeth and shaking hands…..NOT GOOD at all).

    Madhuri,
    Somehow, women seem to be grossed out more easily than men.
    Is it because they are more sensitive?

  4. Madhuri: Trust me you would not want to eat street food in Uttar Pradesh (except chaat in Lucknow’s Janpath area)! What may delight you as a biologist is that you can find a whole colony of microbes of all castes and races in one street food vendor’s handcart, all dragging the customers to a version of hell in the same handcart…

    Street food in Calcutta (kaathi kebabs off Park St or chelo kabab at Peter Cat) is a different league and I think that is what you are referring to… 🙂

  5. Sorry Shefali, I do love chelo kabab at Peter Cat but was really referring to the roll stalls in Gariahat (bedouin etc). I know …i know as a biologist, i must distance myself from street foods, but if it is some solace, i do indulge in hot perfectly cooked fresh food off the grill variety.
    About chaat and golgappas i have teenage cousins who make them at home (YUM).
    NY has a whole street of small shops and eateries on jackson heights. I am a weekly visitor.

    Chelo doesn’t qualify as street food in Kolkata. Any other city you can cite where you get a good chelo kebab?

  6. Ummmm..Some food for thought.

  7. Do you know what eating a masala dosa with a fork, and not fingers as most Indians (unlike you) do, is like? Making love through an interpreter 🙂

    (from an episode in a PBS show, describing a videshi guy eating masala dosa in a Thiruchitrambalam restaurant)

    TRF,
    LOL!

  8. I actually love to eat food using my fingers, and have no shame in doing that. The joy and pleasure of eating rajma-chawal (or rice-lentil) with my fingers far surpasses doing the same using spoon/fork (though I am respectful of surroundings and fellow-foodies sharing my table). I haven’t ever had to lick my elbows though. I agree with TRF about the “making love with an interpreter” part – I saw the same quote (‘eating pizza with fork/knife’) on the blackboard in a pizza place too.

    Amit,
    I eat pizza by hand, too.

  9. Pingback: A Hand to Mouth exsitence !! at Blogbharti

  10. Yeah, eating habits are culturally defined round the world. And none of them are objectively/rationally superior to others, from aesthetics point of view.

    A hotdog only reminds me of the long tards I leave every morning. I have always wondered how one can enjoy that as food. More things come to mind, but I’ll spare the meat lovers 🙂

    Anand,
    For small mercies, thanks!
    🙂

  11. Rambodoc: I’m not much of a messy eater, but I tend to cram my food down like it’s the last of its kind. I’m especially prone to shoving wads of salad in my mouth with little time between forkfuls (or handfuls, as is usually the case). I’m glad there’s a whole group of people that supposedly eat this way – it makes me feel a tad better about myself.

    Bancheese, these seem to be your salad days, so enjoy!
    🙂

  12. Yekks- Khyuse me 🙂

    Ancient Tamil texts state explicitly that Sakkarai Pongal and Bisibele Bhat are not Sakkarai Pongal and Bisibele Bhat respectively, unless you can pick a gobful in your palm and the ghee dribbles down to your elbows.

    Now, are you chollenzing yancient Tamil wisdom? No,na? Ok then 😛

    PS: My college canteen served the most hygienic food in Bangalore. This is because all the bacteria in the food were doomed to die of infection themselves.

    Dude,
    😀
    They prawbubbly stilll are not yaware of traance fats.
    Thanks for the louwly commentu!

  13. Nice post, doc… 🙂

    Also liked the world quiz at the end – scored 7.

    The ancient wisdom behind eating with hands is that we’re evolved with the habit of eating with the hands and hence generate more saliva in the process. Eating with cutlery is alien to our mouth. Hence food eaten with the hands is supposed to be digested better.

    Disclaimer: I’m just quoting my uncles here, and not myself! 🙂

    Mahendra,
    And what are you doing to take that impressive score even higher?
    🙂

  14. I remember an incident when a friend, when suggested that he should use fork for eating, for the sake of hygeine said – I know my hands are clean because I wash them myself, I am not sure about your cutlery because somebody else cleaned that.

  15. Awesome post doc!

    One can never enjoy Chicken tikka and boti kababs with forks. You most definitely need a naan or kulcha with it.

    Besides the subcontinent culture I have also heard that their are many benefits for this hand to mouth approach(medically speaking).

    Thanks, aMmAr!

  16. Just one thing: I would love to dine with you… just for the fun of watching you eat 😉

    As long as you pay for that pleasure, Oemar!

  17. Awesomeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,
    Oops sorry, the carefully calculated mixture of rice, sambar, more kuzhambu, fried colocasia, vadu maanga, and arisi appalaaam is running all over my hands and has fallen on the “e” of my keyboard.
    Now that Im done with the rice, let me just finish lifting my entire plate to loudly slurp the rest of the liquid.

    Ashok,
    Hahaha!
    I am thinking of devising a new operation for Tamils like us, where I detach the tongue from its base, and re-attach it to the front of the mouth. You can imagine the subsequent froggy possibilities, including cleaning up your keyboard without having to bend down….
    😀

  18. Rambdoc,
    There is a lamentable omission in your current post. You have made no mention of one of the regular utensils, if it could be called that, that we Thamizhs use. The banana leaf. It is, as I am sure you and your readers will agree, impossible to use the Western culinary utensils such as fork, knife and the various sizes of spoons while eating out of a banana leaf.

    Observer,
    Agreed. Utensils are another post altogether. Keep watching!
    🙂

  19. “Rambodoc”,
    It does not matter how you eat, you shit like other South Indians. Your shit smells like any other Indian, or for that matter, any human being! Get your logic right. South Indian dishes differ from North Indian and hence the difference in manner of eating. A nice choice of topic, but the content and expression is very condescending that makes further discussion with you petty. You exaggerate like a brat who believes his ass smells better than others. Shift the focus of the camera from yourself. Though you attempt to talk about what others think of you, yet you tend to gloss it from your angle.

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