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F likes eating with all the accoutrements of the western world. This means he likes his fork, spoon and knife and he will not let go of this even in the face of adverse circumstances like eating off a (totally flat) banana leaf or eating fish which is so packed with bones that it’s hard to come out alive. The degree of eccentricity can be gauged when one sees him at the dinner table picking away at a buttered roti with a knife and fork for more than a couple of hours and the rest of us are on our way back home.

 

Like F, many westerners who travel to countries where people eat with their fingers, like Iran or India, are squeamish about letting their fingers do the work for them. I have seen young Europeans struggle on with the forefinger and the thumb of BOTH hands with very entertaining results. Sometimes I wonder what all the fuss is about. Most countries have eaten some food or the other with their fingers. Japanese sushi, Arabic falafel, Mexican tortillas, Spanish tapas, the list is endless. In the court of Roman Emperor Hadrian the food was served on low tables and Romans helped themselves to the food with their fingers.

 

A billion Indians will tell you, the best and probably the only way to enjoy your tikka and curries is with your fingers. All you have to do is wash your hands and dig in. We are programmed to finger-eat for god’s sake.

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The Asian landscape is dotted with temples. From the renowned (and certainly wealthy) Tirupati in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India to the Emerald Buddha (or Phra Kaew Morakot) in Thailand, each of these places of worship have their own unique ‘prasadam’ or temple food, depending on which part of the world you are in.

 

The origin of organic food is perhaps from the Buddhist temples of South East Asia. Traditionally, temple food is made from seasonal vegetables handpicked from mountains and gardens. The ‘ohshinchae’ or the five simulative vegetables garlic, green onions, leeks, wild rocamboles (or garlic) and Chinese squill are not permitted in any offering given to God. The belief is that these bring bad luck, evil spirits and lust. Meat too is avoided. The lack of these ingredients naturally makes temple food bland but positively healthy. Strangely, this genre of food has now made its way to chic restaurants in cities like Seoul claiming to offer ‘real temple food’. Some also go as far as to offer ‘fusion temple food’. Makes one ask, what next?

 

In Hinduism too food plays a central role in rituals and worship. ‘Prasada’, in Sanskrit, is the offering made by devotees to God and then consumed. Like Buddhists, Hindus too don’t offer onions, garlic, mushrooms or meat ascertaining Buddhism’s deep foundation from within Hinduism. Like Buddhist scriptures, Vedic scriptures and Ayurveda explain that these foods excite the more passionate elements of the human psycho-physical constitution. Therefore, the food offered to God consists primarily of rice, vegetables, sweets and fruits. Some Hindu temples are renowned for their prasadam like the famous ‘laddu’ available in Tirupati prepared from ‘boondi’ (little sugary balls), dried fruits, saffron, spices and sugar. The present consumption for this is a staggering 1, 40,000 pieces daily. Such is the craze that the Special Officer at this temple has recently announced that a buffer stock of 3, 00,000 laddus will be kept ready at all times.

 

Interestingly, some Hindu ceremonies completely contradict everything the Vedic scriptures say as far as food is concerned. For example, the Bengali community in Eastern India offers lamb or mutton, in the form of a sacrificial goat to Bhadra Kali, a form of Goddess Durga. In the historic Dakhineshwar Temple in the state of West Bengal in India, Goddess Kali turns vegetarian once every seven years. The legend goes that the founder Rani Rasmani had a son-in-law who was vegetarian. Unable to bear the sight of blood he pleaded with his mother-in-law who promised him that Goddess Kali will not be offered meat once every seven years .

 

And finally to take it a step further the Goddess is sometimes even offered country liquor by organizers. Just goes to say that the gods can have fun too.