the challenge of napkins

In India, forks are optional. In the north, you generally use bread to grasp your food. In the south, you use your fingers to scoop your rice. Our friends assured us that silverware actually detracts from Indian food because it hides the tactile aspect of it. And it didn’t take us long to agree with them.

But it took us longer to develop the dexterity native to a culture of forkless food. Our friends and coworkers would casually perform acrobatic right-handed eating feats we’d struggle to duplicate, like using one finger to hold roti in place while tearing off chunks with their forefinger and thumb. Anyone who has done this all their life will have no idea how much practice it took us to accomplish.

And bread was the easy part. Meat was far more challenging. While our dining partners were effortlessly picking chicken bones clean, I’d either be smearing gravy up to my elbow or sending chunks flying across the table directly at the whitest kurta in the room.

In the guise of taking touristy pictures, we picked up techniques from other diners at Karim’s.

We learned to appreciate eating with our hands far sooner than we actually got the hang of it. But while the lack of silverware eventually ceased to confound us, the general shortage of napkins usually left me looking like a Jackson Pollock painted in the medium of korma.

Jenny would encourage me to point out the pronoun in that last sentence: I’m the slob in this relationship.

Even when I use a fork, I tend to require a half-dozen napkins in every meal. There’s clearly some general fault in my hand-eye-mouth coordination for which I compensate by using my lips like pinball flippers. So when you remove my fork as a tool for accuracy, every bite leaves my face looking like Heath Ledger’s Joker.

In fact, until I reached Delhi, I had no idea that I have an unconscious habit of wiping my mouth and my hands after almost every bite. But my attention was soon drawn to the challenges of this habit for two reasons: first, because there were always far fewer napkins at the table than I was comfortable with; and second, because the napkins were almost always smaller and less absorbent than I required to efficiently cleanse myself of my culinary lipstick.

This picture comes from our adventure with Karim’s famous goat. Note the bounty of food. Note the dearth—and the apparent absorbency—of napkins.

I don’t know if this neurosis is bred into most Americans or is  unique to me. Throughout the meal, I’d eye the napkin supply, imploring myself to conserve my resources; but a napkin junkie can’t resist his stash for long. Soon I’d be carefully folding and refolding my napkin in search of surface area not yet stained by my shame. And by the end of the meal, it still usually looked like I’d used my forearm to stir a cauldron of dal.

Why so few napkins? Supply and demand. Indian diners are given fewer napkins because they require fewer napkins. First of all, they’ve learned to get the food in their mouth, not on it. More importantly, they scrub their hands like surgeons before and after every meal. And during the meal, they just hold their hands in front of them to protect their clothes. Nobody worries about messy fingers during mealtime—when you’re done, you just go wash.

Their wash always gave me my opportunity. The moment my companions stood for the sink, I’d pounce on their pristine napkins and satisfyingly squeegee a meal’s worth of morsels off my fingers. But the evidence of my barbarism would remain: a mountain of dirty napkins stacked in my plate. Eventually I adopted the habit of hiding a handkerchief in my lap for surreptitious finger cleaning, and then folding it into my jeans when I was done so no one could see how sauce-laden it was.

From then on, for the duration of my stay in India, my pockets smelled delicious.


15 responses to “the challenge of napkins

  1. I love reading your articles at Our Delhi Struggle.
    It gives me this funny sense of hope.

    A lot of stuff, anectodes and experiences you mention and write about is largely ignored not only by me but a large chunk of the present college going generation. Its taken for granted.

    However, reading them from your perspective makes me come to terms with the novelty and amusing side of things like say Forks are definitely cool but nothing beats the lip smacking finger licking Tandoori Chicken.


  2. What stops you from eating all that with a fork/spoon? Give it a try. Maybe, just maybe the Indian bread (chapati) would be hard, but the rest of it is easy.

  3. lol. maybe i need to have a similiar post about having to make do with toilet paper when i was in europe.

    without the pics.

  4. the worst napkins can be found at road side stalls. they have this bizarre glazing on them that doesn’t allow grease to stick on them!!! What’s the point of that??
    No need to be embarrased by the stack of napkins. Indians feel most if you enjoyed the food, rather how you looked while eating, cause they all know the look isn’t pretty. 🙂

  5. lol soon you’ll have the dexterity and be licking your fingers clean after meals haha
    ok maybe not everyone licks their fingers…but how can you waste even a bit of the delicious curries??…its a crime i say
    Besides isn’t that where the phrase “finger licking good” comes from?
    at home i would even lick the plate clean hahaha

    Eating with hands and fingers gives me some kind of primal satisfaction

  6. Really fun read!

    Listing your blog on mine 🙂

  7. You know where your fingers have been … do you where that fork has been?

    Greetings from New York, next time you’re here – get me some food from Karim’s por favor!

  8. I love your blog! And I love the poster!

    Also, I nust confess that, despite being a true-blue Indian, I do the same with food! I get food on various parts of me and my clothes, and desperately need napkins all the time.

  9. When I first came to Canada and lived on my own among individuals who found my habit of eating with my hand quite barbarous, I was forced to succumb to using forks/spoons. I do use cutlery when I am outside, but at home, eating with my hand is the norm. It’s just easier.

    It’s great to see you guys on the flipside. Thanks for the laugh.

  10. Eating with the right hand is practiced and it takes time to master the skill. As kids we are encouraged to do so and using both hands is now as frowned upon. In fact, we would be gently reminded but still went on to tear chapatis or hold down the dosa during meals. Grown ups are expected to know these tricks 😉

    Napkins are such a waste of paper imo. Smaller hotels would just cut up newspapers and hand them out sparingly. lol. Then again a lot of the olden gen used to carry handkerchiefs and would just use that after rinsing hands. Talk about environmentally good practices.

  11. Just wanted to drop a line saying I am equally inept at tearing off a roti with one hand. I manage it somehow but lack the dexterity to do it skillfully. Comes from growing up in a family of rice-eaters (rice is also something I eat with a spoon as I don’t like to get my nails yellowed from the curries!)

  12. Those “acrobatic” feats are necessary because using both hands to eat is frowned upon.

  13. Mere Dosto, yeah, and napkins in India are something like the consistency of old fashioned onion paper, prone to disintegrating into useless, shredded shards of paper-ish flotsom after the first wipe of your mouth. Main kyah karuun?

  14. Too sad… just remember that poor trees are getting chopped for this habit of yours… 🙂

  15. Pingback: Kana aura Pani (part one) | experimentindia

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