We were attending a traditional wedding in Kerala a while ago, where the wedding feast was the elaborate lunch or sadya served on large banana leaves. A traditional Kerala sadya is purely vegetarian, with multiple courses, all eaten with rice. Even the dessert of payasam or kheer is often eaten on the leaf itself.
So, there we were, waiting in anticipation, and in order, all the dishes were served, the rice the last. My husband and I started to dig in, only to realise after a few moments that our ten-year-old had not started, and was trying to attract the server’s attention. He wanted a spoon, and heaven help us, a fork! Under the bemused gaze of the rest of the clan, who like us, were all eating with their fingers, and with some gusto, Ishaan got his spoon (they were rather apologetic that they couldn’t provide him with a fork).
It was a moment of epiphany for me. Family members jovially called out, he’s a true saipan (foreigner), isn’t he? I was quite embarrassed. It had never occurred to me till then that my boy didn’t know how to eat rice with his fingers! In my quest for hygiene, and since I was not always at hand to feed him, from babyhood, the emphasis was on using cutlery. It was only a clean means to get the victuals into the child. It had become so habit forming that even after he could eat on his own, he continued with his spoon and fork routine. And I never ‘taught’ him how to eat rice with his fingers. Rather, it didn’t occur to me to teach him.
Eating with fingers, if you are alien to the culture, is an art to be learnt. We who have been bred in it, don’t realise that it can be intimidating for others. A Canadian I met in Colombo, many, many years ago, said there is a technique to eating with your fingers. I looked disbelievingly at him, wondering why he was making a meal out of such a simple thing. So he demonstrated by scooping up some rice in his right hand and just tilting his fingers into his mouth, which looked clumsy and messy. He looked at me quizzically, where am I going wrong? I mimicked his action. And only then did I realise that after we scoop up the rice, we use our thumb as a kind of piston to push the food into our mouth. It was an Aha moment for me. Go on, try it. You will understand what I mean. So unless someone has shown you the right way, it can be a difficult task. That was also a moment of epiphany. Just like we have to learn how to use chopsticks, for instance, people from other cultures have to learn how to eat with their fingers!
To me, it’s the most natural thing in the world. I have always only eaten with my fingers, and learnt the art (if it can be called that) of eating with a fork and a knife, much later in life. And I am still a reluctant user of cutlery. There is a reason we say ‘finger-licking good’, don’t you think? Of course, some foods are not suited for eating with fingers. But for the rest, especially for Indian foods, fingers are the best.
When babies were born, in an earlier generation, there was this custom elderly women had of rubbing sugar into the gums of the new-born with their fingers. Needless to say, they rarely ‘sanitised’ their fingers. My son thankfully escaped that, and though I have a soft corner for old customs, this is one practice I find truly disgusting. Some limitations have to be imposed on fingers too, I guess!
They say eating with fingers has a myriad health benefits. I don’t know. I just know that the taste of steel with the rice is rather off-putting. So in polite company, and maybe in impolite ones too, I will use cutlery. But at home, I will do as my heart pleases:-)
After that Kerala episode, I took it upon myself to teach Ishaan how he must eat rice. I have to say, some habits are best formed from childhood. When eating with his fingers, there is still an awkwardness about him. He fumbles a bit, like we would when attempting a newly-learnt, and still unfamiliar task. It’s a bit painful to watch him, and I eventually hand him that precious spoon. And he sighs in relief. But I have ensured that he won’t ask for cutlery at our next sadya outing…:-)