The only way to eat in India is from a banana leaf, with your hand, preferably sitting on the floor. There is no describing this experience. It is wonderful. Interestingly, there are a lot of health benefits from this style of eating, but it also provides an intimacy with your food that is not easily experienced in the West.
If you want to experience this in India, you can. To eat with your hands do this:
Wash your hands. Every restaurant, cafe and stall with seats will have at least a hand basin.
ONLY use your right hand to eat. The left hand rests in your lap.
If you have not eaten with your hand before, watch someone near you – there is a knack to it and it gets easier with practice.
Do not lick your fingers.
After you finish your meal, take those messy fingers back to the washbasin and wash your hands again.
NEVER drink the water supplied with the meals if you are a visitor. Drink only bottled water.
There. Easy. Wonderful. And no utensils to wash! Also, as I mentioned, there are many healthy and metaphysical reasons for eating this way. Perhaps I will post on this in the future.
In my last two trips to India, I have been fortunate to be fed at various ashrams in South India. The experience of mass feeding is wonderful (I am overusing this word), with its own rituals. In addition, feeding people is a spiritual practice in India that you often see in temples and ashrams. In the photo at the top of this post are people from Australia, Ireland, Thailand and USA, at one of our wonderful meals.
Most commonly and traditionally, people sit on the floor in rows, or, for a smaller number of people, around the walls, with a banana leaf on the floor in front of them. More recently, when feeding large groups such as at weddings, and perhaps when the people being fed are non-Indian, long trestles and chairs are used. I prefer to sit on the floor.
The banana leaf has a little water sprinkled on it. This is used to wipe your leaf (with your right hand only). Because this is not bottled water, if you are a visitor to India, you might also like to wipe the leaf dry with a tissue or the edge of your dupata.
Then, each element of the meal is delivered to your banana leaf plate by an army of people.
At this ashram, they covered and decorated the roof of the ashram for us to eat in the cool of the evening, with the breezes washing away the heat of the day and the smell of the sea refreshing our minds. The ashram is run by Sri Jeyandrapuriswami who is based in Bangalore – I met Swami and his guru, Sri Tiruchy Mahaswamigal, on a previous trip to India. Swami was kind enough to arrange us to be fed several times in his ashrams in Rameswaram and Tiruvannamalai.
Each person in our army of servers has a large pail of curry or rice or rasam or curd or vada or chapatti or (so many things!), and each deftly delivers the food to our banana leaf. Each item has its assigned place on the banana leaf.
Writing this is making me hungry.
The people are so beautiful, both in looks and in soul, serving us with amazing attention and assisting with our needs.
Have you ever seen a more beautiful person? So full of grace and love.
And so gradually our plate fills with amazing abundance.
Below is a meal, partially served, in Tamil Nadu. I happened to find out that this meal was cooked a half a dozens doors away from the ashram, and carried in the giant pots to the ashram for serving to us. The cooks were unflappable, even one night when their cooking equipment blew up. They just replaced it and went on cooking. The meal was a couple of hours late (but what is that in India?) and we had a lovely time while waiting to rest, talk, plan the next day and relax. (Most of our group did not realise what had happened. It is just that I came across the place that was cooking our meal while wandering down the street one night.)
This is a meal in Kerala, with the Keralan very special red rice. I fell in love with the red rice, quite different from the usual basmati that I use. It is called rosa matta rice, or just matta, or kuthari.
Can you tell that this meal was served in a restaurant and not an ashram? We have napkins! And different types of glasses! Actually, it was a great meal cooked by quite a well known chef in Kovalam. The dal that you see over the rice was my most favourite – Neyyum Parippum.
Before we eat, we receive blessings from the Guru and Swamis.
The food is served in several “courses”, each varying a little in the dishes served, and according to a well known order. Each one fabulously fantastic. Whether 1 or several courses, the serving army comes again and again and again, with more rice and more masala and more dal and more pappadams and more … until you are absolutely full and can’t get up of the floor.
Most times, something sweet is served on the banana leaf together with the other components of the meal. There is an order in which to eat some of the items, for example, the curd and the sweet items. For example, it is good to take a small taste of the dessert before eating the other dishes, as it helps to awaken your digestive system. Different places have different customs regarding the curd, but in South India it is mainly eaten at the end of the meal.
In Kerala dessert came in the form of three different payasams served seperately. It was very special to have the opportunity to taste all three together.
Each one was delicious. Sweet. Just right after hot spicy food.
If I have misunderstood some things, or missed any essentials out, or plain got some things wrong, please feel free to let me know in the comments.
The photo of people sitting on the floor is by Thomas Kelly, who joined our trip in India, and took Most Amazing photos.