Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Playing with Your Food

In my last post I discussed "intelligence of the hands and feet," something I've known about intellectually but thought about that much before. It occurred to me that the whole question in Sri Lanka of eating with the hands is part of this bigger picture. 

This was my fourth visit to Sri Lanka so I had seen people using their hands to eat on many occasions. I have to say that it grossed me out. The idea of handling wet food with one's hands was just something I couldn't make peace with. 

Until this visit. Thanks to determination and close observation. Eating with the hands is not, as it would seem, shoveling food into your mouth willy nilly. The hands are used in ways that no utensil can duplicate. For example, say you're eating a fish of rice, curry, and dahl. Your first step is to sort of feel out the ingredients and mix them together in a preliminary way. I use my thumb to squeeze the ingredients together gently. 

As you combine and eat you begin to discover. The dishes, for example sambol, are a mixture of ingredients. With the tips of your fingers you find larger, harder, or inedible bits. For example, onions are hard for me to digest and by using my thumb and forefingers I can sort through a sambol and kind of push, or even place the onions to the side. 

All the time that you're eating you're rearranging the food on the plate. I haven't watched people that closely but for me it's satisfying to continue to mix and arrange, bringing the shrinking pile of food closer to me. 

String hoppers, which I had for most of my guesthouse breakfasts, are a slightly different story. You can mix them with your food or you can use them as kind of soft mini tacos into which you can put morsels of whatever you want. 

My last morning I was served "green gram" which, from what I can tell, was just boiled mung beans. It might have been an uninspiring part of the meal if I was stuck using a fork. Instead, I found myself squeezing little fingerfuls of the beans, arranging them with the grated coconut and spicy chiles with cabbage I was served. This way the flavor of the beans came through and my probing, squeezing fingers acted as a sort of first stage in digestion, mashing the beans before they came into my mouth. 

If, as I think, you gain knowledge through your fingers, this way of eating provides you with further knowledge about what you're eating. You experiment with proportions, textures, and flavors, making each bite a little different. What grossed me out at first is actually a way to elevate the culinary experience, highlighting the complexity and delicacy of Sri Lankan cuisine. 

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