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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Food #1: It’s like being a kid all over again...Or Eating With One's Hands

Today we’ve gone for a “meals” lunch and this seems like a perfect opportunity to introduce you to the joys of food here. As many of you know, much of my travel stories from China read like a food guide and I expect that India will no different, especially once I get on the road. Just as customs and dress and language varies considerably across the continent, so apparently does the food. Yum.

A “Meals” lunch is a particular type of meal, but one that is quite representative of South Indian (or more so Tamil Nadu) cuisine. At a Meals place you sit down in a general mess and get a palm-leaf placemat put in front of you. Rice is slopped down in the centre and the waiters continuously rotate around with a variety of curries, chutneys and dhals. Each saucy dish is summarily dumped on the rice and mixed about with ones fingers. The goal appears to be a consistency ideal for matting into a sticky ball capable of popping into one’s mouth. It seems to be a subtle thing that comes from experience. I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it yet but the learning curve appears quicker than mastering chopsticks. ;-) So you cycle through these various sauces and dishes, and they keep slopping more onto your plate until you firmly signal no, usually 1 or more helpings past what you really needed. You’ll get a papudam, some pickled vegetables and maybe some fried banana chips on the side. When done, you simple fold the palm placemat in half, leaving it easy to clear and dispose of by the staff. No fuss, no muss, no dishes.

This style of food is typical of South Indian food, generally simple, but tasty and well spiced. Even at home or in standard menu-type restaurants, the food almost always comes in separate little dishes that you then add to one pile on your plate and mix into a multi-hued mess. It is not a place for those who like their foods in separate places TV-dinner style or those averse to keeping one’s hands clean. Food in India is an inherently messy, tactile affair, but a well enjoyable one.

Now, eating with one’s hands, let me tell you, is not as hard as the guidebooks lead on. I had some trepidation pre-arrival about eating with my hands, having read warnings and complex descriptions about how one is supposed to eat, what one should and shouldn’t do and how hard it is to master. Perhaps other parts or other strata of Indian culture have more rules – quite probably as the upper class have been know in all cultures to invent ways of differentiating themselves and excluding others via complex customs – but where I’ve been so far, it was not a big deal. First, eating with only one’s right hand is the only firm and golden rule. The left hand is considered impure and therefore rude to use. You quickly notice that most Indians eat with their left arm across in front of them, elbow on the table, or tucked in their lap. It is like a guard against temptation, and it works. If you lean on it, you quickly remove any chance of inadvertently and embarrassingly bringing your left hand into play. The other method, again often used, is simply to use your left hand to talk with. :-)

The real lessons useful for 99% of us are simple ones: dive in with relish, use only your right hand and watch what the locals do. It is fun and not that hard – after all, we’ve all done it, if not recently (and really, you should from time to time) certainly as kids. So my simplified travel guide can be reduced as follows: channel your inner kid, pull off or wad up bite sized pieces and don’t be shy to get your hands a little dirty.

Of course where things seem a bit more blurry is which hand to grab the spoon to scoop further helpings of food, to pass food or to hold your glass. I have read that for similar “unclean/impure” reasons, the left hand is also be mostly out for these activities, but then you’ve got food all over your right hand, so that doesn’t work either. From a purely non-greasy perspective, I use my left to hold most anything other than food, but can’t say if that is correct. It seems one of those little things you discover with time. So my report is that eating with ones hands took 10 seconds to pick up on arrival, but like any new activity, will take some time before I’m wadding rice mixtures like the locals.

In terms of what is on the menus here, many people are vegetarian and as such most restaurants advertise whether they are “veg” or non-veg” and often will not serve both. Personally, I’m happy with both. Most Indians being Hindu do not eat beef, but of course the Muslims and Christians will so it is readily available. Most South Indian dishes are served with rice, although Northern chapattis and rotis are also popular. The quintessential South India and in particular Tamil Nadu starch though is the dosa. Dosa is basically a big rice flour crepe, served with 2 or 3 chutneys and sambar, which is a soupier version of dhal (lentils) favoured in the South.

I should note some terminology. It doesn’t seem to be standard or even in the application of English translations of Indian dishes, but for my purposes, the following definitions can be used. “Curry” is an anglicize term and there is no actual “curry” spice in India. However, “curry” has come to generally mean any saucy, gravy-type dish of meat or vegetables. So it is a category or type of dish, not a specific dish. A similar English term might be a casserole. There is not one casserole and your mom’s might be as different from my mom’s as chicken is from cabbage. So you get the idea. Now “chutney” seems to be an equally hazily defined term, but seems to be used to describe any side or dipping sauce, or again matching the American similarity, a condiment. It can be coconut or tamarind, spicy, sweet, red or green. Ketchup could be called chutney in the right context. Next, a “dhal” or “sambar” is any lentil soup/stew/sauce side dish. Finally, “masala” is any mix of spice and also interestingly and conveniently is also used in conversation here to mean adding anything “interesting” into the mix, as in “you write the key points of the letter and give it to me and I’ll add some masala to it before sending to the Minister.” And that is the basics of Indian cooking, and Indian business actually, which share more than a passing similarity.

So (and again, this may not be completely correct, in which case I will correct later) I will generally use curries and chutneys to refer to the type of dish for most all Indian meals regardless of content. Each will of course have a particular, unique name, as all things do, but I will probably not know it, can’t remember it, or can’t hope to spell it even if I did. But assume I find it tasty. Such is life here. So for example a few nights ago I had an excellent spicy prawn curry, yesterday was a spicy chicken curry – one was more like soup, quite similar to Thai green curry, the other more like chicken in gravy. Those advising me on the names of things generally refer to things in this way. The Indian food found in curry joints and restaurants in the West basically serve conglomerates of the most popular and exportable dishes from across India. So North American-style Indian dishes do certainly exist in reality here – you’ll find vindaloo in Goa, korma in Hyderabad and Tandoori (a Northern-inspired style), pretty much everywhere – but you certainly won’t find them anywhere in one place and there are many, many others never featured. So many meals, so few days...

So there you go, a quick and very dirty guide based not on any reputable source, but a workable system for one immersed in a culture.

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