I will never forget my first meal in India. It was on a Sunday night back in March and I had flown into Bangalore for my job interview. The President, Head of Ops and our Head of Sales for India all took me out for dinner. Upon my request they selected an Indian restaurant, and when we walked in I could see that I was the only foreigner in the place. Aside from a highly traumatic, near-death experience over a spicy mushroom that resulted in the entire restaurant staring at me for about two minutes as I gagged, coughed, turned red and basically made a complete embarrassing ass out off myself… one of the coolest things I remember was seeing everyone eat with their hands. Well, one hand for the most part. Of course, I only noticed this AFTER my eyes stopped watering from the killer mushroom and I could see everyone again, hehe.
Nowadays, I have started to acclimate and I think that I am much less embarrassing out in public. Since moving to India on April 16th, I eat Indian food at least one meal per day . My tolerance to spicy food has gone from “zero” – as my colleague Sandip jokingly advised me after the mushroom incident – to something more like 45% of the natural capacity of my Indian friends and co-workers. I rarely need a sip of water in between bites anymore and I haven’t coughed or started sweating in a few weeks. This really wasn’t an attractive look on me, haha! Although, admittedly, my nose still runs from time to time when I eat something that rather kicks my ass still 🙂 Not pretty but WAY BETTER than turning into a spitting tomato!!
SIDE NOTE ABOUT INDIAN FOOD: It is interesting to see my colleagues bring Indian food for their lunch everyday. Well, that’s not really true…one of my colleagues did bring Chinese food one day that he ordered in because he hadn’t brought lunch from home. I have never eaten the same cuisine every day, day after day. Back home in Spain or California, we’d eat Italian one day, then Japanese or Mexican the next, then Spanish, Thai, or continental….or even one of 30 types of sandwiches available. I love the variety of Indian food, the regional differences with spices and ingredients. Yet whenever I bring up the subject of different cuisines with my colleagues they simply beam with pride as they talk about the massive diversity of the Indian cuisine. They have no interest in eating anything else. But for me, to be completely honest, after a few days of Indian food for lunch and dinner I start to get bored. Not because there isn’t variety but because I start to crave sushi or penne pomodoro or tacos al pastor or sauteed chicken and mash potatoes 🙂
Spicy food aside, the next biggest challenge for me has been learning to change my eating style. I admit that in the U.S. we love our different size forks, different size spoons, and different shapes and sizes of knives. The more utensils, the merrier. So up until a few weeks ago I was still asking for a fork and knife at every meal, tearing my bread with two hands, never letting the gravy touch my hands, cutting up my chicken into bite size pieces with a knife then grabbing it with bread, and so on. Yet everyday at lunch I saw my cool colleagues eating one-handed, and never spilling anything either on themselves or around their plates. Well, I live here now and want to learn to eat like an Indian. And so it began.
First, generally speaking, you only touch food with the right hand. From what I understand this is a hygiene/restroom thing. (You also never give a business card with just the left hand, or shake with the left). Now, I still see people tear bread with both hands at times but I can’t say I have ever seen anyone scoop up or tear food with the left. It was my colleague Padma who assured me that it was 100% acceptable to eat whole pieces of chicken without a knife a fork, tearing small bits off at a time with my fingers. But it feels so foreign to me to eat in a way that lodges food under my nails that until this week I really hadn’t embraced this much. But last week I did it. I made a really big mess splashing gravy around and flicking it at myself as I tried to delicately pull off little bits of chicken but I did it! Haha I assume that practice will make me less like a toddler and more proficient at it, fingers crossed. Not sure I’d want to do this wearing a nice dress or on a date at a fancy restaurant quite yet but give me time 🙂 Although I am not 100% sure that I should do this at a fancy restaurant either?? I assume there are some differences in etiquette between eating lunch in the office cantina to dining out at a posh Indian restaurant. Hmmm, need to talk to someone about that!!
As for replacing the utensils, this is done with the traditional flat breads of India. You use the right hand, grab an edge between the thumb and forefinger and use the remaining three fingers to hold down the bread as you tear off that hunk. It’s obviously not hard to do but I haven’t mastered it 100% yet so my bread and the things around it do go flying a bit!
From what I see, if someone is eating rice then you grab a spoon (although I still instinctively go for a fork), and soup is of course eaten with a spoon. Yoghurt with a spoon, etc. But it is completely feasible to eat an entire meal without using a fork or knife, and only using a spoon to serve the various dishes onto a plate. I LOVE that so much. In fact, today I ordered a chicken and gravy with two buttered naan and a sweet lassi for dessert – so no utensils. How much more natural could a meal be? My only problem is I am still trying to lose some weight so I always limit my pieces of bread to two maximum – and, of course, no rice – so I either have to throw some away or end up having to eat the gravy with a spoon…but that just seems weird, like swallowing thick soup.
Next move? Mastering spicy food, once and for all. I hate being singled out for my wimpy palette. Plus I want to be able to try every Indian dish without fear.
XOXO from Bangalore
© Angela Carson, Angela’s Adventures in Bangalore blog and photos, 2011