There's a shared sensibility in the Subcontinent when it comes to matters of eating. People almost always eat using one hand (the right hand), and they very seldom use utensils. This may not sound like a big deal, but we think it is. Time after time we watch foreigners come to the Subcontinent and have a very difficult time at first, eating without utensils and using only one hand. But interestingly, almost everyone breaks through, and when they do, they are entirely converted. Eating by hand influences how food tastes and how we relate to it. It's so sensual, so direct. But when we go back home, no matter how hard we try to resist, out come the utensils. Eating is a very culture-bound tradition.
One of the great pleasures of eating in the Subcontinent is that styles of eating by hand differ from place to place. When northerners eat rice, they pick it up with the tips of their fingers and then use their thumb to push the small amount of rice into their mouth. In southern regions, people eat rice using the entire hand, forming a ball of rice (approximately the size of a golf ball) by gathering the rice into their palm, flicking the wrist sideways to shape it into a mass, and finally tossing the entire ball into their mouth.
As a foreigner, it's fun to watch and learn, to try to imitate (though a style doesn't come quickly). After a while, when you think you've got it down, the style itself feels somehow crucial to the food, as if that particular food has to be eaten in that particular way. And if you eat by hand, when you're finished with your meal, you still have tasty little bits on your fingers, and then later, even after you've washed your hands, there's a delicious aroma that lingers. As foreigners we find all this wonderfully addictive, and so we can only imagine how important it would feel if we'd been eating this same food in this same way all our lives, and how unsatisfying it would feel to eat with utensils.
Recipe: Sweet Yogurt Sundae with Saffron and Pistachios
Yogurt makes a simple and attractive sweet course or cooling snack-treat. This version of sweetened yogurt from Bengal is called mishti doi, doi being Bengali for "yogurt." The yogurt drains for an hour to lose its bitter whey and to thicken a little, then it is blended with jaggery (palm or crude sugar) and flavorings. Use good whole-milk yogurt, preferably organic. Serve in small bowls or tall sundae glasses and top with pistachios, or with pomegranate seeds or chopped toasted almonds.
• Line a large sieve or colander with cheesecloth or coarse cotton.
• Wet the cloth with water, then place the sieve or colander over a bowl. Place the yogurt in the sieve to drain for 1 hour in the refrigerator.
• Turn the yogurt into a bowl and set aside. Use the whey for another purpose (it makes a refreshing drink and can also be used in place of lemon juice to curdle milk for making chhana and paneer), or discard.
• If using the saffron, lightly toast the strands in a small dry skillet over medium heat, until brittle. Add the milk and cardamom or nutmeg, or if not using saffron, heat the milk and cardamom in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer, and simmer briefly, until the cardamom releases its scent (and the optional saffron gives off its color). Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar or honey until dissolved.
• Whisk the mixture into the yogurt. Use a ladle to pour the yogurt into glasses or bowls. Top with a sprinkling of nuts or pomegranate seeds, and with a little more sugar if you wish.
• Serves 8