My wife Meera and I often have non-Indian guests over for dinner – typically a sumptuous Indian meal that she makes.
Everyone digs into their rice and daal, hariyali chicken and prawn curry with silverware. Then my daughter clears her throat and quietly asks if she can please just eat with her hands.
And why wouldn’t she? She’s now 12 and has mostly grown up in Queens, the most diverse patch of land in the known universe. She’s as comfortable taking a ham sandwich to school as steamed idlis with coconut chutney.
To her, a fork isn’t a sign of Western cultural superiority; it’s a nuisance and serves no useful function in an Indian meal. Hand-eating is what we do.
So invariably my wife and I exchange a quick glance and give her the A-OK. Eventually I started following my kid’s lead, thinking, “Well, if she can eat with her hands, why the hell can’t I?”
And then, a couple weeks ago, I decided it was time for me, finally, to hand-eat in public.
Many Indians today eat breads — chapatis, parathas, naans — with their hands, but stick to utensils for rice. But hand-eating is the real deal: A set of fingers, after all, is infinitely more nimble than a set of metal tines, far better equipped to pry the spines out of a fish molee.
Indian mothers like to feed their babies by hand. And there is really nothing in the world as tasty as a ball of food fed to you at any age by your mother. Its composition is perfectly and instinctively calibrated by her fingers — a precise combination of rice and sambar, or stir-fried plantain and a couple flecks of papadom. And, of course, lots of ghee.
My mom once explained to my teenage self that the secret was biochemical: The subtle oils of her fingers imparted some sort of alchemy to the little sphere — a pheromonal cocktail, I suppose — that would only fully blossom in the mouth of her offspring. Others would just call it maternal love.
But as we got older, we mostly kept our hand-eating ways to ourselves. I grew up in Texas in the 70s and 80s and didn’t want to be thought of as some kind of culinary barbarian, the Indian kid who ate like a third-world savage. Classmates who tried to get invited over to my place represented a potential threat.
It’s only in recent years that I noticed how outdated this attitude was.
As an Indian friend of mine says, forks make you look colonized. So I decided, finally, to hand-eat in public, and found a public atrium on Wall Street for my big debut. (I made a video about it, too, for my WNYC series Micropolis.)
I chose a fish thaali from Anjappar, a great restaurant in the Murray Hill neighborhood, featuring food from the Chettinaad region of South India. As I plunged my hand into the pile of rice and fish curry and some thin, tangy rasam, I expected a couple stares at the least.
Instead a couple old men approached me and asked for Indian restaurant recommendations — deeply anticlimactic. But I actually enjoyed my meal and figure it’s now worth an encore, perhaps at a fine-dining establishment near you.
Hand-eaters of America, meet me there.
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