What’s left on your plate?

| Updated on November 13, 2020

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A foodie cries foul at India’s Balkanised food customs

Dear Editor,

“What left-hand dishes do you have at home?” The question puzzled me — and it showed. “Left-hand dishes,” she repeated, as if to the severely ill-informed, “not right-hand dishes”.

We had been through the usual questions: Did I eat in a plate or a thaali? Did I drink water with my meal? Alcohol? And so on. But politically positioned food? Dear Editor, must our country be Balkanised by food customs? Is this what our founding fathers fought for?

My first exposure to our motley food habits started at a ‘meals stop’ on a long train journey to South India. I sat cross-legged on the floor with others in the station’s Tiffin Room, each facing a banana leaf. We were lined up for Standard Meals; those for more expensive Bombay Meals (including chapatis) sat separately at round tables. The knowing ones sprinkled water on the leaf, wiped it all over and shook it behind their backs. I tried that and was corrected: “Over left shoulder only.”

I had eaten rice all my life but here the server told me to divide the mound in three: The first to be eaten with sambar, the second with rasam and the last with sour curds. A man with a ladle came around saying “ghee” loudly, then mumbling “Dalda” under his breath so that no one could accuse him of misrepresentation. I followed the prescribed rituals until I observed something small and multi-legged taking first share of my curd rice. Not to alarm the others happily slurping through their food, I started to quietly leave. That brought an immediate warning from the server, head swivelling from side to side, finger raised like a politician: “You have not taken curd rice. In our vegetarian food, other things may be left over but not curd rice.” Which side of the vegetarian line did my squirming curd rice guest fall into? I told him my train was leaving and rushed out.

Food customs start with the approach. I like to take off my shoes before eating, but not because, as I have been informed, “shoes are leather: Non-vegetarian”. After all, there are no objections to the leather belt holding up my trousers or indeed to my leather purse (least of all, in restaurants).

I eat with the fingers of my right hand, up to the first joint, and not the whole of each finger... except in Kerala, where at breakfast, puttu and banana must be mixed by squeezing them between the fingers. Modern customs creep in — in Delhi, someone given one spoon complained bitterly that he could not eat without two spoons, one for each hand (and a green chilli to nibble between mouthfuls). At a Goan rice-plate café in Mumbai, I complained about a dirty fork. The waiter looked at me superciliously, rubbed the fork with a piece of bread to remove the more visible remnants of what could be several previous meals and dropped it scornfully back on my plate.

Faddists may choose to eat silently with pious expressions and closed mouths. Others noisily suck in semi-liquids like rasam rice and belch loudly when satiated. Traditional noodle eaters in the Far East draw long noodles into their mouths with the whistling sound of a high-speed train going through a tunnel. We don’t yet have bullet trains.

But left-hand dishes? “In your thali, dal must be kept on top, vegetables on the right, rice-roti in the middle. Salt, pickle, chilli, kachumbar, chutney, papad on the left. They are left-hand dishes,” she explained. “These are the additions that bring charm to the meal, help to lift the flavour. What kind do you have?”

Dear Editor, left-hand dishes and their charm are leaving our meals. Today it’s not just fingers of the right hand, but those of both hands that are structurally anchored around the burger to let teeth be buried and the mouth to rip out another piece. At intervals, left hand may snake out to seize more fries, right hand to grope for the glass of fizz. Meal over, fingers are wiped on flimsy napkins and the paper remnants rolled up and tossed wherever. There is no left or right to it.


Ghee fingers crossed

Published on November 13, 2020

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