You are what (and how) you eat

Considering we all spend a considerable part of our lives either preparing or consuming food it stands to reason we are influenced by the experience. Conversely, the way the food is cooked, presented and eaten is an expression of the mental tendencies we have. Through a combination of personal circumstances late in my life I became acquainted with the cooking and eating habits typical for the Indian culture. The fact they are unlike what I was used to may point to some deeper differences between the Eastern and Western lifestyles and mentalities.

European/Western meals will typically consist of three distinct groups of food – proteins (meat, fish, eggs), carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, pasta) and vegetables/salad. While a Western dish can be prepared from only two of these food group as ingredients there will normally be only one type of protein and one carb used. It would be rare for, for example, potatoes and rice or meat and fish to share a dinner plate. The ingredients of the dish will normally be presented as separate heaps on a dinner plate and consumed using cutlery – knife and fork in most cases. From the plate we should be able to tell if it is breakfast, lunch or dinner time as each of these meal has its own menu and left-over beef gravy will have to wait for next dinner before it is served.

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A brief look at the Indian culinary culture reveals some major differences. For starters, the ingredients used in a dish do not follow the Western division into protein, carbohydrates and vegetables/salad. It is quite common to add potatoes to rice recipes and one of my personal favourites, kichoori, has rice, potatoes and split peas mixed together, with little protein and no salad. Many curry dishes will have potatoes added to the curry sauce, which is then consumed with white rice. It is also common when eating in Indian restaurants to order a few curries to share so you may end up with fish, prawns, chicken and lamb on your plate.

But it is what happens next that may shock some of my Western friends. Everything on your plate is mercilessly mashed up before being consumed and the process is manual. You will not see many people eating with their hands in upmarket restaurants but this is how most Indians eat at home. It mixes the meal ingredients on the plate and helps release the complex flavours of the aromatic spices. It also allows an almost intimate interaction with food, absent in the Western way of eating. Once cooked, the dish will be eaten at any time of the day until it runs out.

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So in the European/Western culinary culture we have meals prepared from rigidly selected ingredients, presented as separate food groups on the plate and consumed one-at-a-time using cutlery. Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus are normally different – serving scrambled eggs for dinner would raise an eyebrow or two. To me this attitude to eating expresses the West’s formality, tendency to separate rather than unite and rigid adherence to rules. The Indian way on the other hand allows any combination of compatible dish ingredients, mixes multiple flavours on the plate and encourages eating with hands. The same dish can be served at any time of the day. This approach emphasises a flexible, relaxed view of life in which food is meant to be simply enjoyed with few rules to follow.

Bon appetite and kripyā bhojan kā ānnaṅd lijīyai!

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