Eating With Your Hands

By Sam McKeown

Upon an aluminum plate sits a fragrant mélange of bottle squash kootu, vegetable curry, and seasoned rice. My belly rumbles from the scents of mustard seed, onion, turmeric, and coriander powder that perfume the air. My colleagues and I sit patiently upon the wood floor awaiting the completion of the prayer. Under the supervision of Devi, head of the Life Education Center, we’ve prepared our meal with careful consideration for the three doshas—pita (fire), kapha (water), and vhata (air). In traditional South Indian cuisine, each meal is meant to combine ingredients that help balance the dosha within the body, thus attaining both physical and spiritual balance.

By participating in the preparation of our meal, we’ve not only exchanged laughs, techniques, and stories, but also a small piece of our personal culture. For some, cooking represents a reflection of the self, a means for us to share small, non-verbal pieces of information of our personal journeys. Where did you learn to salt the water before you boil it? Why do you cook the onions first? Why do you use sunflower oil versus olive oil? For others, cooking is a source of anxiety, an exploration of opposing elements that threaten at any moment to taint the flavor of your meal and thus your self-representation. In a broader sense, cooking is a codification of collective values that has been and is continually reinforced generation after generation. Regardless of what cooking means for you, it can unanimously be considered a form of communication. An equally important form of non-verbal communication, however, is eating.

Upon my aluminum plate sits a small, plastic spoon. I glace around the room and notice that our Tamil hosts aren’t eating with the spoons, but rather their hands. Despite having eaten with my hands several times during the course of my stay in Auroville, there’s always a brief moment of anxiety before I begin. Being American and having seen a few different parts of the world, South India has been the first time I’ve experienced the culturally normative practice of eating with your hands. But what drives the fear behind this interaction with food? Is it fear of being thought of as messy, as I inevitably get rice on my nose every time I eat with my hands? Is it that most Western cultures have effectively created an implicit fear to the sense of touch in eating through reinforcing the use of utensils? Or is it simply a fear of trying something new? Perhaps it is a combination of the three. I take a breath and dig my hand, specifically my right, into the rice that has been doused in curry and kootu, scoop, and eat. The texture is both foreign and familiar at the same time, a texture I expected but still can’t necessarily put into words. It’s not slimy; it’s not hard or rough; it’s possibly a little sticky and creamy.  I glance around the room again and realize that not a single person has reacted to the rice that has clung itself to my right nostril. What has seemed to me a personal victory of overcoming neophobia to others is the simple act of eating.

When interacting with cultures inherently different than our own, eating is a meta-lingual exchange that can reveal an underlying dialogue. By picking up the spoon, I’ve reinforced my own culture and therefore my otherness from my hosts. By eating with my hands, there is the removal of a small but noticeable barrier between my cultural subjectivity and acceptance. The flavors of the meal are strong but complementary, subtle hints of spice balanced with the tangy acidity of tamarind. Before I’ve  realized, my plate is completely empty, my belly is satisfied, and my doshas presumably balanced. A collective lull has settled over the group, one that seems to transcend conventional cultural boundaries—the ubiquitous satisfaction of a good meal.

Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet

save worldWhile the above phrase is meant to be a joke, it actually is quite true. The cacao tree can aid in the healing of not only Earth but humans well.

Sustainable cacao tree growing is not only environmentally friendly, but assists in providing natural balance for forest vegetation. Also, it can grow simultaneously next to 50+ types of other trees (including the coconut tree which is very important to India considering it is one of the top exporters of coconut in the world) which naturally pollinate the cacao tree and therefore requires minimal, if no, use of chemical fertilizers.

cacao podsI know I stated that chocolate can heal humans and that might be a little farfetched. However, there are certain properties of the cacao bean that are beneficial to humans and can aid in improving our health. Consuming dark chocolate, in small quantities of course, can improve heart health, lower blood pressure, and packs some serious powerful antioxidants.

There is already a huge chocolate industry, so why are environmental and health benefits still being discussed? While that is correct, the industry is not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a darker side to the cacao industry which is not sustainable to human beings.

Luckily, the dark side of chocolate does not seem to be present in India, at least as much as in other parts of the world. India is not necessarily known for its cacao industry although many big chocolate companies, such as Cadbury, Mars, Hershey’s, actually do get their beans from India. However, the farmers in India sell all their beans to these big companies; meaning both the good AND the bad beans are going into the chocolate that you more than likely buy. These big guys aren’t too keen on superior quality.

That is starting to change. There is a movement in the chocolate making industry now to follow what is known as the bean-to-bar process. I must admit that I had no idea what this was until I was introduced to a wonderful social enterprise here in Auroville called Mason & Co Craftsmen of Chocolate.  This process of directly making the chocolate bars you consume straight from the bean itself (and not from pre-made bulk chocolate that is melted down and molded into bars) not only allows for better flavor and purity, but also allows the farmer to harvest a better quality product and be able to receive fair prices for his beans.

mason cacao roastingmason chocolate barMason Bars 3It was not apparent to me at first, but now, after studying this company, I can see how almost anything can be under the umbrella of sustainable development. How working directly with farmers to improve their crops to obtain a fair trade value provides the income needed for the farmer to support his farm and his family. How with improved crops it in turn improves the quality of the cacao beans used to make chocolate. How even deciding to plant cacao trees in the first place helps the Earth’s natural soil components while also aiding the vegetation surrounding it and naturally keeping away pests so that there is no need for artificial pesticides.

Next time you buy some chocolate, research the company before you do and see whether they are on the right track to help heal the planet while of course at the same time providing you with a delicious treat.

I think I’m going to go take a chocolate break now…

 

*All images courtesy of Mason & Co.

Healthy Plate Update

Perhaps you’re curious about the food here in Auroville.  We’ll there are a plethora of options from very traditional Indian cuisine to more elaborate western dishes.  One offering that has caught my interest, and that of a few others, is the “healthy plate” offered at the visitor’s center cafe.  The healthy plate offers a soup, starch, bean, salad and dessert — all for just 155 rupees, or roughly two euros twenty (3 US Dollars). Today’s selection included:

Pumpkin Soup

Baked Potatoes with Creamy Leek Sauce

Garbanzo Bean Salad

Carrot and Beet Salad

Fresh Pineapple