The way hot goat’s cheese simply dissolves into a creamy delight on your tongue. The visual excitement of a freshly made pico de gallo, with bright red tomatoes and fresh green cilantro screaming out to your taste buds before even reaching them. The smell of bacon grease in the morning, tantalizing your nostrils as you still clutch your pillow and wipe the dreams from your eyes. The crunch of biting into a grilled ear of corn, followed by the drip of sweet juices and salty butter down your chin.
And then, something else:
Remembering on which side of the plate the fork, spoon, and knife belong. The embarrassment of picking up the wrong fork for the appetizer plate. The screeching sound as metal meets porcelain, or worse, your teeth. The complications of eating a plate of crab legs with tiny little metal utensils in a fancy restaurant. The disconnection between etiquette and the sensuality of eating.
All of a sudden, there was something different.
When I went to Singapore, I stayed in a little hostel called Footprints Hostel in Little India.
This isn’t like other parts of Singapore, what some travelers call just a little too sterilized or Westernized or whatever… this is a hustling, bustling little spot full of smells and colors and textures and people and everything that makes you want to smile from ear to ear! The first things I noticed were the glittering gold shops and the stalls filled with luxurious satiny saris. I’ve never been to India, mind you, so this was the closest I’d gotten!
The trip was rather hodge-podge and poorly planned on my part, so after checking into my dorm, I simply went out to the lively little patio to meet some people. As I sat and chatted and attempted to lay out some plans for the next day, the sun slowly settled in for the night and my tummy started to interrupt with increasingly louder grumbles. I had been so excited for my trip that I had forgotten to eat! Without a word, an Indian man who had been helping at the hostel jumped to his feet and trotted off with his words trailing behind, “I’ll get some foooood…!”
Shortly thereafter, he returned with two bags bursting full of Indian food. Even before I could see what was inside, I could smell the aroma of curry, cumin, coriander, and all those other glorious spices endemic to Indian cooking seeping through the containers. As he pulled the dishes out, one by one, I noticed that these weren’t really containers at all, but rather each was carefully wrapped in a simple piece of thick paper. He cleared the table, and spread the masalas, paneers, rice and naan across the table before us… then just began digging in with his hand!
Now, I’m a true Southern girl, and we do eat some things with our hands. A plate of deep fried chicken, juicy watermelon, succulent smoked ribs… cheeseburgers (reminds me of an argument I had with a French boyfriend appalled at the use of my natural utensils, but I digress). But there are some things you just certainly do not eat with your hands. Using knives and forks is just somehow considered to be more refined, more appropriate, especially around company.
Sitting here, all the way on the other side of the world in Singapore, I had one of those moments where I covertly looked frantically all around me for some sort of utensils, not knowing exactly what to do. And then, well, I just relaxed and took the plunge. To be sure, there is a sort of etiquette to eating with your hands, but there’s also something so much more sensual and connected about the process. I associate smells and tastes and sights of food with such intense emotions, but it never occurred to me to link this new thing, this engaging touch, with those feelings. What is more, I felt instantly connected to these five people sitting around this table, sharing from this food with our very fingers, together. This simple action of eating with my hands awakened some primal sense of community and bond within me. Plus the food was obviously delicious…
I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately, all of these rules around eating. Different countries and different cultures all have their own etiquettes (let’s not even get started on the rules for eating sushi!), and sometimes it can get a bit confusing. While I mean no disrespect to any of these cultures, and hold much esteem for the beauty of some of these ceremonies, eating with my hands felt like it completed the whole sensual circle of a meal… and a little like just letting go.
Now I’m hungry for Indian food! But seriously, if you haven’t foregone the fork yet, I dare you to give it a try!