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.