The popular expression goes “You are what you eat.” Less well-known but no less true is “You are what you perceive and how you perceive.” The wonder of our human senses.
That is how I felt when news of the opening of an Indian restaurant “Desi Mane” (Amchigele Ghar) hit my Whatsapp box. Thanks, with happy emojis, was my immediate response.
Desi Mane is a global Indian restaurant chain that recently opened its first location in Toronto. Traditional south Indian food in all-you-can-eat format served on a banana leaf. No spoons, forks or knives. All you can eat with your hand.
I can almost envision a giant banana leaf laid to perfection and two little bowls. A waiter comes with hot white rice topped with a drizzle of aromatic ghee and pours some piping hot dal speckled with cumin seeds. Another bringing sauteed and stewed vegetables and another bringing my all-time favorite papad, pickles, and green and red chilies. I am not the only one who is feeling hungry and relieving the memories of a visit to a Venkateshwara temple.
In South India people eat with their hands. This is a practice from the Indian science of Ayurveda – a system that sees food as medicine to prevent, rather than cure. Our fingers cumulatively represent the elements of life: Thumb for fire ( a.gni), the forefinger for air (vayu), the middle finger for space (Akasha), the ring finger for Earth (prithvi), and the little finger for water (jala).
Eating with your fingers stimulates these five elements and helps bring forth the digestive juices in our stomach. Kind of a system of correspondence, to receive vital energies of life and to enhance the taste with touch. Not to mention eating with our hands creates a physical connection with food and helps to be more conscious of the food we eat. By taking food with our fingers, our attention becomes tuned to the temperature, texture, and aroma of the meal. Translating into better digestion and better health.
In the vedic texts collectively known as Upnishadas, there are many musings on food as the fundamental substance of the universe passing from field to plate to the stomach to soul until a human being dies and turns back into food. Seen in this light, eating is a direct embrace of life, distinct from the knife and fork culture of the west or the chopstick culture of the Far East .
Eating with our fingers denotes presence and pleasure for our fingers, not to mention a primal delight to a South Indian.
Of course, even in cultures where the use of cutlery is the norm, we all eat with our hands-on some occasions – an apple or a carrot stick, a sandwich, or a slice of pizza. But these foods do not need that five-finger coordination.
To millions of people around the world who regularly eat with their fingers, the mechanics are highly sophisticated, the result of long practice from childhood.
During my early years in Canada, locals who saw me eat with my hands used to laugh and poke fun. However, when they tried to imitate, that cumulative experience of hand eating wins hands down. It takes great skill and even artistry to grab a chapati and use your index finger as a clamp and your thumb and middle finger to pull off a small piece, then the top of all fingers to fabricate a little scoop for dal. Even more complex is the art of filleting a fish while you eat squeezing each morsel to take out all the bones. This added work slows down the meal and deepens the enjoyment of eating a fine piece of fish.
Last but not least, finger eaters are environmentalists to the core. Ahead of our time without even knowing it! No food wastage, utensils in need of washing, and even the plate can be composted. Came from nature and give back to nature.
Now that the in-person events have begun, isn’t it time for our OKA president to plan on a meal served on a banana leaf and indulge our five fingers at the next OKA function? Go fingers!
About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time…