A traditional Kerela lunch: eaten on plantain leaves with your right hand. And ONLY your right hand.
Today I would like to talk about some recent revelations I have had on food after watching a lot of British shows concerning the history of cookery ( what a cool sounding word, It’’s rather proper!). It was by complete accident. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I ended clicking a specific youtube recommendation that made me fall in love with a series exploring the basis and history of British cuisine. But before I go on, I feel that I have a confession to make: I’ve turned into a bit an Anglophile.
You see, this is not so much a new phase in my life. I’ve always had an appreciation of classic English literature (though sadly I rarely have the patience and the time to complete them. It’s been three years, and I’m still stuck at chapter 22 of Great Expectations…). What is new, is my love for the British sense of humour….and their awesome costume dramas. Initially I consumed most of my British comedy via youtube uploads (luckily, I found alot of the stuff I wanted to watch on Netflix! Please bring more!). It went from Monty Python, to Armstrong and Miller to Mitchell and Webb to QI to Horrible Histories. Long story short, eventually I encountered the amazingness that is “The Supersizers” by clicking one of the recommendation videos on the youtube sidebar. After sharing my fandom for it and celebrating its very existence with my fellow Canadian friend (who unlike me, actually lives in Canada), she informed me that because it is a British show about food, like many British lifestyle shows, it actually aired on a mainstream Canadian network, which I would have actually got the chance to watch if I had not moved (This is just one thing I miss about Canada. I miss all the British shows even the mundane Location, Location, Location and not being able to watch Horrible Histories legally on TV. And watching Daily Planet…Not a British show, but I miss it nonetheless). But I digress. the main point is that from watching the amazing duo that is Giles Coren and Sue Perkins, as they eat their way through centuries of British culinary history has made me see how different European cuisine is in general.
This revelation is very similar to the one I had when I first realized that in most Western cultures, unlike most Eastern cultures, one does not take off her shoes before entering home ( in many ways, this is a sequel to that tale). This time the revelation takes the form of a creation of a mental collection of different cultures’ perceptions to eating food, primarily of which concerned how to eat the food. I had always known that Western culture generally looks at the very practice of eating with hands as something rather barbaric, uncivilized and unsophisticated. It’s a very condescending, unjust, imperialist, racist and an uneducated assumption, but like stereotyping, it exists. At home, coming from a South Asian, more specifically a South Indian background, we always ate with our hands. Eating rice with various curries on a plate (or if a special occasion it’s disposable and environmentally safe plantain or banana leaves) does not require any fancy cutlery. The general rule is that one must wash his or her hands before and after the meal (and you’re only allowed to eat with your right hand. The left hand is reserved for…other purposes). Being so used to this eating culture, I remember often forgetting which hand the fork and knife are supposed to go with when I bought lunches at university ( for once in my life, I did not have to eat nutella sandwiches. Eating this for lunch for ten years can make someone actually hate nutella). It’s quite strange, because I would never eat anything with my hand in public even if I was in an Indian restaurant (unless it was filled with Indian people doing the same thing) or I brought Indian food to school. It’s just not normal and many diners would consider it a bit rude (of course , when eating Western food, we use cutlery). What’s even stranger is my parents observations that North Indians (whose culture, cuisine and language is what the majority of the world thinks is literally all of Indian culture because of Bollywood) think that eating with hands is rather unclean and unsophisticated. My parents’ retort is that the restaurant cutlery in your average restaurant in India isn’t always clean, even according to Indian food and safety standards. If anything “hand eating” is much safer as you won’t contract some disease you thought was eradicated decades ago and it’s better for the environment. Northern India is not alone in this intranational snobbery. Nations such as the Philippines have this similar national discomfort with using hands. I remember taking a class about dictators and diaspora of the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. We read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters and hearing from my Filipino classmates’ experiences with their culture, I learned how the elite and more urban citizens believe the idea that the more whiter, the more European you are, the better. And of course eating with hands was not for the better. It’s interesting to see the effects of colonialism on a population that is no longer colonized. And from my understanding, eating with hands was and still is practised in the country. Watching “The Supersizers..”, especially in some of the pre-fork and knife era episodes, really made me cognizant of the very ordinary fact that eating with just the hands is so unusual because of the simple fact that they mentioned the particular era did not use a fork and knife. What shocked me more in these episodes is that they just wiped their hands with white handkerchiefs and NOT wash their hands.
Going back to dog eating for a moment, any culture that thinks cultures that practice dog eating are cruel and wrong, should take a good look at their own meat-eating habits. (That’s right I’m talking to you, you hypocrite. Sure eating pork, chicken or beef is OK, but if the animal is cute than you are a horrible person for eating it. Whether you choose to eat it or not if entirely up to you but don’t go moralizing, you cultural supremacist!)
Speaking of meat-eating, this was the topic of my second revelation about Western cuisine. Not that I don’t eat meat, or that I find that it tastes horrible or anything. It fascinates me how meat is often the centrepiece, the very essence and the highlight of a meal. The main course has to contain an animal in it. At my house, we might eat meat in our diet maybe once or twice a week, but the centerpiece of our dinner is usually rice or any other grain made “bread” such as roti (or chapatti). Western cuisine has a very different idea of what makes a good supper. The Wartime episode of the Supersizers really caught my attention to the fact that the low ration of meat made meals rather dull and empty. Were this two years ago when I watched this episode, I would have not understood the dependence or demand for meat in their diet. I do now because I experienced what the average non-Indian, white person eats for a home cooked like lunch while eating at college. From that experience, I can see why everyone craves meat. It’s not so much that the meat tastes good (it actually tastes rather plain to me), it’s more to do with the fact that the way vegetables are cooked is shockingly bland. Most of the times, the vegetables are steamed and that’s it. No wonder everyone looks so forward to the meat; it’s the most interesting part of the meal (besides the desserts of course). I’m reminded of an Old El Paso commercial I watched a lot in my childhood in which a teenager was stuck in this dull prison like environment, forced to eat a very bland dinner of rice and baked chicken until he couldn’t take it any more and face-planted into his food. Of course, not all Western cuisine is boring and not innovative. If watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations has taught me something, it is that Western cuisine has a lot of beautiful things to offer and is always innovating. But I am often amazed at how no one is tempted to add chili powder or pepper to any of their bland tasting food. Then again, not everyone thinks that the minimum standard of what constitutes a food to have taste as being measured according to how runny your nose is….or how much water it takes to ease the burning tongue (though really you should have drank milk).
While on the subject of meat, I think I understand why most people think vegetarian cuisine is bland and boring. The main problem is that people try to disguise and vehemently try to believe that vegetables can be meat products i.e. tofu “meat”. The main problem is that people need to recognize that meat and vegetables will and always will taste rather different. You cannot replace one with the other despite what chemical experimentations you try. Once you’ve accepted this, you can go on to enjoy a world of vegetarian cuisine and might even prefer it to its non-vegetarian counterpart. It really comes down to tastes, perceptions and what you grow up with. On another note, it’s quite fascinating that the average British person knows what a poppadom or chutney is. Of course I know that this is the result of an Imperial history, but I was very much surprised of its being in common parlance.
Speaking of Indian food in Western countries, what I’m beginning to realize of late is that when North Indian cuisine (which again, is what people think is the ambassador of Indian cuisine) is packaged to a predominately white clientele, the food becomes a tad bit “white-washed”. Not that it tastes bad, but I often see dishes that most Indian people regardless of religion would not eat. For example, Bombay duck (duck is eaten, but it’s not really common. Also depends on which state you live in.) and the even more confusing Bombay venison…the fact that I didn’t know what venison was until a few years ago, is good indicator that virtually no one eats that in India. I suppose other ethnic (oh how I abhor this word, it assumes that white people have no ethnicity…which they do) restaurants in Western societies have this same issue of the need to cater to the public tastes.
Well, I think I’m babbled on enough about food long enough. I’m getting hungry just writing this. But sadly I just ate and I’m on a diet.
Yes, for the three people who read my blog, which includes myself, might be surprised that I haven’t written something since January, early January. Under the assumption that you are willing to indulge me in my belief that I’m Internet famous,I will go on to explain. My excuses are legitimate, I have been swimming away from piles of studying and school work. But It’s semi-over now, well unless you count the MCAT studying I’m supposed to do. Well, the point is that I’m much more free now. In my spare time, I’ve watched a lot of Netflix shows that I really wanted to watch which included a lot of British comedy. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of BBC radio and has got me inspired to want to produce a podcast thing(anyone have suggestions on how I can go about doing this?). And I plan on watching every episode of Avatar…because I cheated with the fandom. Wish me luck. Hopefully I should end up getting studying done as well. All this is just to distract me that I can’t go to AN this weekend -_-