The first time I sat for dinner with Surya and his family, I was handed a jute placemat, an aluminum cup with cold water, a platter of rice, and six small bowls filled with meat, vegetables, fish and dal. It was all very attractive. And before I could say ‘thank you,’ Surya’s mom gasped, leaped onto her toes, and skittered away to the kitchen coming back with a spoon and fork.
A spoon and fork?
Contrary to what happens in Indian restaurants back home, in India eating with your hands is customary. In the north and west of the country that translates to tearing up a chapati or a fluffy naan and using it to scoop up a saucy roganjosh or saag paneer. In Kolkata and the rest of Northeast India, eating with your hands is a skill that requires you to turn rice into a practical utensil.
Rice, or bhat as it is called by Bengalis, is the staple food in West Bengal and Northeast India. Scientists believe that rice may have been cultivated initially in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, which stand directly north of Kolkata. Bengalis’ connection with rice began as early as Hinduism, perhaps even earlier. Long before utensils were invented, Bengalis grew and ate rice, so the habit of eating with your hands and using rice as the glue for everything else on your plate is as ingrained as religion. One hallmark of how embedded rice is in the culture is language. In English, we commonly use one word to talk about ‘rice.’ Bengalis use a variety of words to distinguish rice’s phases. Dhaan refers to unhusked rice still waiting to be harvested. After the rice has been collected and prepared for sale, it becomes chal. And bhat is the cooked rice we ate for lunch.
I actually didn’t think much about the spoon and fork when Kakima brought it to me. As guest, I was the first to be served, so I had no standard to compare it to. I just assumed that, given the modern age we now lived in where sectors of the developing world are rapidly adopting Western norms, eating with a spoon and fork in India, even in an Indian household, was not uncommon. After all, the decorum-bound British were the ones who first built Kolkata in the first place.
I was wrong, of course. Once everyone sat down for lunch I realized that eating with a spoon and fork was not the norm. But what really unnerved me was what happened next. I’d been politely scooping my bhindi and onto my plate, flaking the tilapia from its bones and sipping my dal from the bowl when I noticed Surya dump the whole bowl of dal onto his plate, following that by dumping his entire mutton curry on top of it. I thought it was, you know, a guy thing, until his mother dumped all of her bowls, and dove in with her fingers.
I’m not sure if aghast is the right word to describe my reaction. I felt the undulating waves of horror, discomfort, voyeuristic curiosity, and guilt that accompanies the sophisticated traveler. Instinctual disgust over another culture’s customs never completely leaves you, but you also know enough to know that you are profoundly ignorant, insular and, yes, xenophobic. At least on some level. There it was. The truth. I was more of a utensil girl than I thought.
Don’t get me wrong; I love eating with my hands. I am a big fan of Ethiopian restaurants, of pita bread with mezze, of sushi without the chopsticks. But until that moment, eating with my hands usually meant scraping up food with a piece of bread or picking up well-formed, bite-sized nibbles. It was easy and somehow more organized than picking up vegetables with itty bitty grains loosely piled on a plate. Who thought this would ever be a good idea?
Given that India is the second largest producer of rice in the world, with most of that product eaten by Indians themselves, perhaps losing a quarter of our meal while trying to eat was not much of a loss. India grows 4,000 different cultivated varieties. There are thousands more wild varieties as well. Basmati, known as the “queen of fragrance” is the most famous type of rice grown and eaten in India.
With each handful that Surya and his mother drew up from their plates, a few grains of sticky dal-rice failed to make it into their mouths. Chunks of soppy grain clung to the tips of their fingers until, when the leftovers grew too crowded, a small amount of slop dripped back down to the plate. A sink stood not five feet away, but no one got up. Hand washing, apparently, was a post-meal tradition. During lunch they kept their elbows on the table, hands suspended in air, and chatted away. I found it difficult to look at them and talk; my eyes darted to the next sticky clump that hovered at the edge, ready to plop. And then I couldn’t take my eyes off that.
West Bengal is the largest rice-producing state in India with forty-nine percent of its fields still rain-fed and free of many pesticides. But isn’t it the truth that silver linings inevitably have a cloud? Unfortunately, for Indians, the production of rice has met several setbacks in the last decade. Increasing reports are finding dangerous levels of arsenic in the rice produced there, the cause of which is largely due to the traditional production methods. The rice absorbs the arsenic through water sources. To be fair, the problem runs across Asia. Fortunately, with changes in irrigation and modern planting techniques Indians have been solving the problem.
A greater issue in food security is simply supply. In India the central problem of food security is poverty. Over sixty-five percent of Indians consider rice the staple of their diet. And around sixty percent of Indians live in poverty, spending up to half of their income on food, namely, of course, rice. Although new varieties of rice and better planting management have increased the production of rice in India, natural disasters caused by monsoon and increasingly extreme weather patterns still threaten farming.
And these days, with revolution in the Arab world, I don’t, think it’s too extreme to mention that poverty, food scarcity and revolt are not unrelated, particularly when the upper class experiences booming, embarrassing wealth. Ding! That would be India. The government has recently set up an institute for rice research. Hopefully, attempts to produce more rice and thus lower the price for Indians will be successful.
When I next sat down for lunch at the Banerjee household, I insisted on eating with my hands. Why should I be treated differently? Yes, there was the little fact that I was white, not from India, and accustomed to a fork and spoon. There was also the truth that I was a little disgusted by the process. But to experience the culture, there is no better opportunity than when you are living in the home of locals. So, they appeased me. I was given a great mound of rice on my platter. Alta took away the fork and spoon.
I picked up a bowl and held it over my rice when Surya reminded me then that it was polite to eat with your right hand. Doh! You never know at what bizarre times etiquette will rear its head. The only problem was that I was left -handed. I took three times as long to eat my lunch that day and I eventually gave up, rubbing my belly and assuring Surya’s mother that I was stuffed. I went back to the bedroom and listened to my stomach rumble the rest of the afternoon. Luckily, gorging on sweets at tea time is a common Bengali pastime. I fit right in! Thereafter I compromised. I ate without a fork and spoon, but I relied on my natural left hand. They praised my attempts at going native and forgave me my limitations. Good, enlightened people they are.