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Forks or Fingers?

Forks or Fingers?

March 06, 2010

I used to think all Indians ate with their hands, but a trip to a posh Indian restaurant proved me quite wrong.

I used to eat at Indian restaurants--a lot. Not the posh, pearl-inlaid, teeny-weeny dishes kind, but the little hole in the wall spots, the kind with ever-changing menus and cheap plastic cutlery. Samosas were better eaten hot off a napkin, tandoori tastier when I could actually see the tandoor. But the posh places still beckoned, their fancy water goblets gleaming in the sun when I passed by, their leather-backed booths piled with silken cushions, exuding luxury and comfort, the perfect spot to linger after a rich and satisfying meal.

One Saturday, during a long, hunger-inducing walk, Joe and I landed in front of one of the posh places. “I’m starving,” I said. “Want to try here?”

He shrugged. “Passes the test, I guess.” Joe’s measure of a restaurant is simple--if Indians are eating there, it must be good. Like everyone else, we ordered the buffet; the waiter brought us a basket of bread and pappadums. The cushions were soft against my back as we ate, the low murmur of chatter familiar, warm, sort of like an impromptu family reunion. Breaking off a piece a paratha, I swept dal into rice, my finger deft with practice. But as I lifted the paratha to my lips, my skin pricked--the woman at the next table, dark-skinned, dressed like a the heroine's mother in a Bollywood movie, stared first at my hand, then at my fork. I popped the paratha into my mouth. After a moment, the woman looked away.

At first, I chalked Bollywood Mum’s stare up to absent-mindedness--I’ve inadvertently stared at people in restaurants and coffee shops, on the train, in the rain, while out buying mops (Baby likes reading Dr. Seuss - a lot). But as I continued to eat my paratha, people continued to look, turning their heads and taking short, covert glances as if watching an exotic bird. Was it Joe? In a room full of Indians, my pale, freckled husband stands out. But no--the glances skipped over his head, settling on my hand. A quick check of the room confirmed it: table after table used knives and forks, even with naan, paratha, and roti. I was the only person using my fingers. The only person breaking my bread. Setting the paratha aside, I picked up my fork.

Until that moment, I’d assumed all Indians ate with their hands. The folk at my hole in the wall restaurants used naan to sccop up their lunch. My family scoops rice and gravy bare-fingered or with bread. Even Joe uses his fingers when eating Indian (though only with bread), as Baby probably will. Eating Indian food with fingers felt like a natural consequence of growing up Indian, much like eating Chinese food with chopsticks is a natural consequence of growing up Chinese. Was eating with fingers and bread now uncouth?

Three years later, I can’t quite get my head around that day. An Indian friend says she’s refuses to use her fingers unless there’s bread, saying it’s unpractical and too messy, especially if you’re having a conversation with friends. One of my aunts suggested that the restaurant-goers were all Western-born and educated, and ate with knives and forks to fit in. Joe pointed out that they could all be higher caste Hindus, with rules my Muslim family is unaware of. Whatever the cause, I felt, for the first time, more Indian than Indians, yet somehow more lost than ever before, as if there were a secret Indian newsletter and I’d been left off the mailing list.

Today, I rarely eat out. Since Mir arrived in July last year, I’ve been on the go, grabbing snacks (protein bars, cheerios, anything than can be eaten one-handed) eating whatever Joe can whip up while I nurse Mir to sleep. And those times when I crave a good Indian meal? I order in, get out the paper towels, and scoop to my heart’s content.


  • Noel
    18.01.11 03:12 PM

    I pity those people whom you saw at the restraunt.. how are you supposed to eat naan with a fork and knife... LMAO!!! :D they obviously think its inferior to eat with the fingers.... but fingers are among the most hygenic ways to eat your food... because with knifes and forks you dont know where they've been.... Eating with fingers may have been considered unsophisticated and crude in victorian times... but the fact is even kings and emperors in India ate with their fingers... its just our own unique way of eating!! If the chinese can eat their food with chop sticks, then we indians can definitely eat ours with our fingers....
  • Srini Iyer
    Srini Iyer
    13.09.10 06:09 AM
    I prefer to eat with fingers. Fork and spoon be damned as it cannot give me the taste that comes on eating the pure Indian way.
  • chandrashekar
    21.08.10 11:58 AM
    Imagine eating a crisp Dosa with a fork;You will have to be a master acrobat to keep it slipping off the fork while dipping into chutneys/sambar.In addition you have to be conscious of the food clinging to the fork all the time.
    Unwanted mess while enjoying a meal.
  • LG
    09.07.10 07:00 PM
    I love the way you write...and I've seen a different sight to yours...seen foreigners try to eat dosa, chapathi and puri with a fork and knife and have desp wanted to tell them to try it with their hands-like it was meant to be eaten.
  • Peta Jinnath Andersen
    Peta Jinnath Andersen
    31.03.10 07:40 AM
    Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

    @theishu - I know a few people who eat pizza with a knife and fork. I've done it when the pizza's been too soft to hold (which happens a lot with American pizza) but other than that, I don't get it.

    @Nalini - you're completely right! I think eating with fingers makes a difference to the way the tastes come together, too.
  • Allen Vincent
    Allen Vincent
    24.03.10 07:12 PM
    good read... know many who have gone thru this experience, including myself..
  • theishu
    20.03.10 09:58 PM
    I can't figure how one is expected to break bread with cutlery. Like pizza perhaps?

    There's a good reason Indian cuisine is eaten the way it traditionally has been. Fork-lickin' good doesn't quite sound as delicious now, does it?
  • LEB
    18.03.10 03:00 AM
    Very well written about an every day way of life ...sometimes the touch of the skin is so important to soak it all in ... good stuff !!
  • Nalini Hebbar
    Nalini Hebbar
    08.03.10 12:02 PM
    I love eating with my fingers...and the mixture of tastes for a good lick after a full meal...Heaven!!!

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