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Hand To Mouth

Knives out over forks

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High-profile chefs in the US may be encouraging diners to get their hands dirty but back home, cutlery means class for the upwardly mobile.

Earlier this week, Oprah's Next Chapter: India - the culmination of Oprah Winfrey's highly anticipated visit to India earlier this year - was finally beamed on tellies. A deluge of 'outraged' comments followed the screening. The 58-year-old, talk show host and actress appeared to have irked many with her remarks regarding the Indian tradition of eating with one's hands. Having joined a family in Mumbai for dinner, she asks, "I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?"

The hullaballoo around the remark does not take into account the fact that India's relationship with eating with one's hands isn't straightforward.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with eating one way or the other. I prefer eating with my hands because I don't like the taste and feel of metal in my mouth. While it's true that the majority in India continues to eat with their hands, impeccable chhuri-kaanta manners are seen as a sign of social mobility for several Indians, " says foodie and marketing consultant Anaya Das.

Pushpesh Pant, author of India Cookbook and former dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is of the opinion that Indian food is best enjoyed when eaten with hands. According to Pant, "To begin with we all ate with our hands. It allows us to enjoy the sensual delight of eating. Eating with our hands also allows us to gauge the temperature and texture of the food. Tactile sensations of the sort are not possible if one eats with cutlery. There's a reason we use the phrase finger-licking food. "

The New York Times recently reported that several high-profile chefs in the US are asking diners to get their hands dirty in the belief that it heightens the sensual connection to food.

Pant weighs in, "The debate between eating with hand as opposed to cutlery is similar to the one over washing or wiping one's behind. For some people washing is a matter hygiene - they'd be shocked if they were confronted with someone who wiped up after their morning ablutions. Burping's another thing. Many Indians are happy to burp at the table in a show of appreciation. This trait would be frowned upon in other cultures. "
Europeans, too, haven't always been pernickety about cutlery. Chaucer's 14th-century Canterbury Tales portrays an elegant prioress as a mistress of medieval manners: "At meat well y-taught was she withal;She let no morsel from her lips fall, Ne wet her fingers in her sauce deep;Well could she carry a morsel and well keep That no droppe ne fell upon her breast. "

Everyone remembers the "flying escargot" scene from Pretty Woman and a lot of people have undergone similar experiences. Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) joins Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) for a business dinner at an escargot restaurant called The Voltaire. She fumbles around with the cutlery and is mostly lost when one of the other dinner guests puts her at ease by stating, "I don't know about you, but I've never been able to figure which goes with what..."

Next up is the scene where Roberts' character manages to send an escargot flying across the room. She eloquently concludes, "Slippery little suckers. " To which a waiter standing at hand adds: "It happens all the time. "

Yes, such instances can happen anywhere and all the time. Viraf Patel, head chef and partner, Cafê Zoe, Mumbai, says, "Since Zoe is chilled out, diners feel comfortable to do as they please, like eating clams with their hands etc. " While Patel prefers eating with his hands, in his decade-long career he has encountered diners who goof up under the pressure of performing appropriately at the table. Recounting an instance he says, "When eating spaghetti one uses the fork to coil the spaghetti against the spoon but I've seen people do it the other way around. The list is unending. "

However, urban Indians today are painfully conscious of what such a fumbling faux pas would do to their social standing as it were. Consequently knowledge of 'fancy' eating manoeuvres has now become key to new dining experiences.

Dynamic Finishing School, formerly known as the Orchid Finishing School, is the country's first finishing school. Started 25 years ago by Hindi film actress Anuradha Patel, the school specialises in personality development, table manners, etiquette, fine dinning and the like.

Dilshad Gogia, coordinator at Anuradha Patel Dynamic Finishing School, explains, "Our students range from ages 14 to 45 and table manners are an important module at the school. While they're aware of the differences between eating at home and at the restaurant, most students when they join us don't know what fine dining comprises. The nature of Indian food is such that it more or less arrives at the table together. As a result, the many courses at fine dining restaurants come as a surprise. By the time the course is done, however, they're well kitted out for future dining excursions. "
While Winfrey's incredulity is amusing, it's quite clear that Indians too are invested in taming the flying escargot.

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