Upon an aluminum plate sits a fragrant mélange of bottle squash kootu, banana pouria, 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, the final step of the gustatory ritual. We’ve been in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu for several weeks now. Conducting our research in the township of Auroville, an experimental commune that strives to create a multicultural and socially responsible way of being, it’s impossible to not be enchanted by the effervescent forests, roads of reddened clay, and luminous sun that lazily meanders across the hazy sky.
Under the supervision of Devi, head of the Life Education Center—an organization dedicated to women’s empowerment in Tamil Nadu, we’ve collectively prepared a traditional Tamil meal with careful consideration for the three doshas—pitta (fire), kapha (water), and vata (air). In South Indian cuisine, meals have historically paired ingredients to help balance the doshas 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 glance 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 judged as messy, as I inevitably get rice on my nose every time I eat with my hands? Is it that many Western cultures have effectively created an implicit fear to touching food by 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.