Two incidents provoked me to think of what touching anything, especially food, with your hand means. One was a video clipping of the old hand-made murukku (it was called kaichuttu or twisted with your hand) now being made by a machine. The rounds with the proper twists came in circles on a tray from a machine, went and fell into the oil and only had to be lifted out manually. There went one more chance for food to be touched. Untouched by hand is now a selling point, an USP.
The other incident happened at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where there is a food stall called Edible Archives. What they have archived is the different varieties of rice sourced from different places. You get a different type of rice each day, emphasising that rice has taste and is not just a bland background for the taste of the curries. One of the guests there asked for cutlery, or at least a fork, to eat the rice. She was told in a very nice and friendly fashion that rice was not a dish to be eaten with cutlery, to enjoy the proper taste of rice, it had to be mashed with the fingers and the curries mixed in. She seemed to enjoy the experience, even if she found it strange to begin with. I saw her happily licking her fingers when she finished eating. (It was Shakespeare who said, ‘Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.’ Probably applies to people who eat too).
So much of the taste of food is in its intimacy with your fingers. Of course there are types of food that require the help of knives, forks, or even chop sticks to be eaten properly. But that is not our food. Our food requires the delicacy of fingers to be properly enjoyed. When did Malayalis start eating rice (quite a few young relatives ask for and are given by their parents, spoons or forks to eat rice) and iddlies and dosas with cutlery? When did rice sticking to your fingers become a dirty sight, something rather rude and uncouth? The taste of a lot of our food is in the mixing and surely fingers are much more sensitive and suited to that task.
Don’t you have memories of rice being mixed in a big platter and round balls being given to all the children by the matriarch of the family? If you don’t, I’ll say you have missed something special. Before the time when bought eatables conquered our dining tables, and even before the time when special stuff was made at tea time, hungry children who came back from playing outside were given this specially tasty rice. I don’t know what went into the rice balls, but I do know that when my grandmother mixed all the rice left over from lunch and gave us those rounds, they tasted heavenly. They were so much more satisfying and filling than anything we ate at other times. Of course we squabbled over who got more and who got less (knowing grandmother, it was probably weighted equality, she knew who needed more to eat), but that was more a ritual and not a serious complaint.
It is not only about food. Touch is so important. Touch is the quality associated with the wind in the equation of the Panchabutas with the senses. And who hasn’t loved the touch of a soft breeze or even the reviving force of a strong wind? Who hasn’t felt the consolation of an arm around the shoulders when you are sad, the happiness of a pat on the head from an elder in congratulation when you have done something well, a palm against one’s own as a reaffirmation when feeling lonely? The warmth of a hug, swinging arms that affirm happiness, all are so important. So much more can be said with a touch when words seem awkward and out of place. It was Keats who said that ‘Touch has a memory.’ Of course it does. So does a lack of touching, especially with a young child. Touch and taste are senses that develop so much earlier than the others. The child who has not been lifted and hugged when young might suffer from difficulties in relating to others in later life. A tool that should have been handed over naturally has not been given, you see. So, let us touch our loved ones, our food and our lives.