A few years ago I travelled to Guwahati, Assam, to lead a workshop for Christian writers, and for five days I stayed on the compound of the Council of Baptist Churches of North East India.
I always enjoy getting to know the culture of every place I visit, and trying the local foods. In Assam I was soon enjoying delicious curries three times a day, although the mountain of rice that came with every meal was daunting to this Kiwi woman who had a penchant for potatoes.
Learning the etiquette
As in many cultures, proper habits of eating and drinking were important. Dining etiquette was a part of Indian culture, local customs, traditions, and religions. Proper table manners varied from culture to culture, although there were always a few basic rules you had to follow. Since I wanted to adopt Indian eating customs as much as possible, I consulted the internet before leaving home, to find out how to eat so as not to give offence.
I learned early on that most Indian people ate food with their fingers. Your right hand (never your left) was your all-in-one utensil, used for mixing, tearing and delivering food to the mouth. Traditional Indian cutlery did not recognise the use of spoons, forks and knives for eating, Their use was limited to the kitchen. Spoons (for serving) were made of wood in ancient times, evolving into metallic spoons (for serving) during the advent of the use of the thali, the traditional dish on which Indian food was served.
Spoons and forks were commonly used to distribute foods from a communal dish, as it was considered rude to touch the foods of others.
But that was only the half of it. Playing with food or in any way distorting the food was unacceptable. It was important to eat at a medium pace, too, as eating too slowly might imply that you disliked the food, whereas eating too quickly was rude.
Regardless of whether you consumed food using cutlery or with your hand, you were expected to wash your hands before and afterwards. During the meal, cleaning your eating hand with a cloth or paper tissue was considered unhygienic, though with the advent of restaurant dining, it has becoming more acceptable. You might be asked to wash your hands before and after sitting down to a meal.
Managing the Mountain
It was rude for your host to not offer guests food multiple times. Similarly, it was expected that you should not leave the table before the host or until the eldest person had finished their food.
You didn't need to taste each and every dish prepared, but you had to finish everything on the plate as it was considered a respect for served food, and food was sacred. So it was wise to take only as much food as you thought you could finish. Also, at many places, someone insisting you try a dish, or serving special dishes in excess, was considered to be as a sign of their affection towards you.
In various communities there was a particular etiquette for indicating the end of a meal. For Marwaris, the guest had to explicitly ask for papad. For Gujaratis, the guest had to ask for rice. Sometimes in South India, being served buttermilk by the host indicated the end of a meal.
So far so good. I got all that. But the one thing I figured I could never do – or even attempt (more than once) -- was to eat rice with my fingers. I tried covertly watching the others at the table to see how they did it.
I reckoned it must have taken them years of practice, but they deftly scooped up the rice (which might be slathered in dal or some other sauce) and carried it to the mouth with four fingers and thumb without spilling a grain, or even getting their faces sticky. It was amazing. I felt embarrassed to be the only person at the table using a spoon. It was time to give it a go.
Sadly, my first attempt was an embarrassing failure, as I feared it would be. Even my two-year-old grandson could have managed his dinner with less spillage. Once I had the food balanced on my fingers, it took several attempts to negotiate the right speed and grip. The aim was to toss it gently and quickly enough so that it didn't drip through my fingers or hit my chin.
Practice usually made perfect, but I reverted to a spoon after that. Some tasks (like editing) I find relatively easy. But eating sauce-soaked rice with my fingers hasn't yet made my list of accomplishments.
The Book of Romans reminds us that we've all been given different gifts for the purpose of serving the body of Christ. And the good news is that we're not expected to excel in everything; we just need to focus on whatever God has wired us to do. Remembering that came as an enormous relief.
Julie Belding is a freelance editor, ESOL teacher and grandmother of five.
Her previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/julie-belding.html