It was four in the morning. Routing thin darkness, the soothing comfort of silence and focus within, chef Sasi pushed his long ladle in to the depth of the enormous bronze vessel. With a vibrant resonance of rhythmic movements, he touched the corners and began preparing the last item of the menu, ‘palada payasam’ (special rice pudding) for the feast of the day at almost the same time we started our long drive on M1 towards north. Our emotions were filled with smell of festive garlands and eagerness of a colourful meal on fresh banana leaf.
Orating loud from an article about Indian custom of eating with hands and how present day generation of American- Indians cope with this tradition, Sujith read this fascinating debate from New York and together we went through memories of most delightful experiences of tasting food through fingertips. I couldn’t imagine anything better than harvest season in the village. At meal times, we curiously watched Sivan, our agrarian friend, who ate in the most theatrical fashion.
Every time he squashed rice, mixed with curries and pickle, rolled so artistically in almost as big as a tennis ball, and threw it into his open mouth, it was so cool to watch that the process made us hungry every time we saw him doing it. Sharing many stories, we touched deep into the spiritual as well as sensual feel of this art, where people become unknowingly creative and we didn’t realise how fast we covered a distance of 300 miles to Newcastle.
Geordies are known for their close interwoven community, all the more lovable when it comes to their affinity towards Asian culture. It was barely 12 pm and we noticed loads of people already lined up outside for our Vishu (New year) celebration.
Years ago, it was intriguing to watch our local customers struggle eating with hands and most importantly holding fingers together all the way until food was delivered into the mouth. This time I found an amazing difference, most people started eating so gracefully like us from a banana leaf, and it didn’t look like a hard work as in the past.
“To start, hold fingers together. Feel like you have created a spoon. Mix your food well and roll it in a circular shape and gently lift. Let the hand reach your mouth effortlessly without being too conscious about it. Keep repeating and enjoy delicious food,” this was the lesson shared with guests when we found them to be too serious about the journey of food from hands to mouth.
Unlike the popular perception, we found our Brit-Asian customers to be excited at being traditional and enjoying food on banana leaves on special occasions with us. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to eat curry with hands in a restaurant on a daily basis, especially when mingling with other nationalities. I found people of the new generation are more excited about their roots at any given opportunity unlike the ones before. It seemed, the ones before had to act lot more to be accepted or to feed their own ego of pretending to be western in lifestyle.
Food has always represented true identity of Indian culture for us and eating on banana leaves with our fingers brings a definite nostalgia. Honestly speaking, eating with hands instead of cutlery will work divine, if the alchemy of feelings that are transported in every process of food making is right and heartfelt.
Even foreign nationals are getting used to this beautiful habit as communities integrate everywhere on festivals, and there’s happiness evident as you interact with them. It’s important for us to consistently cultivate and revitalise pleasures of age-old practices, at least in our children so that their life will be poised with traditions and modern life.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants