Food is one of the great joys in my life and I love sharing with readers some of the fantastic meals that I have eaten around Asia over the years. During a motorcycle trip through Sri Lanka, I dined in the elegant, Colonial-era Closenberg Hotel in Galle. Only one problem, though, they did not give me any flatware to eat my dinner with because everyone in Sri Lanka eats their meals with their hands.
This story was published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on April 14, 2003.
I first became aware of Sri Lanka’s aversion to cutlery in Galle’s Closenberg Hotel, a landmark lodging dripping with colonial charm from the days when British navel officers and gentlemen of the port frequented it. Inside, all is polished wood, gleaming brass fittings, and breezy cane furniture. The antiquated ropes and pulleys attached to the ceiling fans still work, but the torpid air remains unstirred because the servants needed to power them are long gone.
In the formal dining hall, the waiters work their stations barefoot and bare chested, wearing nothing more than a crisply starched white apron wrapped twice around their slim, dark bodies, and they look coolly elegant in this minimal attire. They continue to recommend the same thirst quencher of yore: the local gin and local tonic water over ice; which does go down rather perfectly.
My order is taken and a Milky Way of saucers, dishes, and bowls galore is arrayed in front of me, each one filled with the various curries, sauces, dhals, and other liquidy concoctions that comprise a proper Singhalese meal. But not a single piece of flatware is presented to eat it all with.
It is in this historic, grand dame of a dining room that I become reacquainted with digital dining; a form of food dispatch that sounds modern enough to have something to do with computers but in actuality is as old as humankind itself.
What I am talking about is eating with your fingers. This is the food conveyance method of choice in Sri Lanka and meals here are consumed entirely utensil-less. Remember when you were a kid and at meal times your mother used to yell at you to stop playing with your food? Well in Sri Lanka, that is exactly how you are supposed to eat it.
If you can imagine what it would be like to polish off a bowl of piping hot beef stew with nothing but your hands, you’ll better appreciate the challenge ahead.
The last time I diligently practiced digital dining, I was still in a highchair trying to memorize the location of my mouth. And during the intervening half-century, the dangers inherent in eating with my hands had somehow slipped from my mind: all the old lessons had to be relearned, the hard way.
I had completely forgotten how much it hurts when you bite a finger. Think tongue, and multiply that by ten. It takes practice and timing, especially in the beginning, to get this new “fill and chew rhythm” down pat, and several times while literally stuffing my face, a finger lingered a tad too long between incisors.
I also forgot how unpleasant it feels when you plunge your fingers into food that only moments before was boiling away in cauldrons or grilling over charcoals. This, at least, is a tradeoff, because burning the roof of your mouth is now impossible since your fingertips are pre-warned of blistering temperatures.
Lefties are in for added difficulties because everything has to be consumed right handed only (the left hand is assigned to duties of personal ablution). To sate an appetite in Ceylon, southpaws must master new, right-fingered eating techniques (which will be discussed shortly).
And ladies with long fingernails? There are some interesting possibilities here, but for sure, an expensive manicure will be utterly ruined.
Contrary to first impression, eating with your hands is not quite as carefree as it was back in childhood because a whole slew of new dining decorum rules have to be dealt with that are every bit as cryptic as those covering Western tableside manners.
For instance, napkins are rarely provided, yet slurping your fingers to clean them is a major breach of etiquette. Much worse than that is wiping them on the tablecloth or your sarong (not many Sri Lankans wear pants), so you should not go that route either.
A shallow fingerbowl of water is always on the table, but on first dip of dirty fingers it is clouded over, and by third dip it is so filled with food debris that it is of no more use for cleansing. What one really needs is a tableside basin, or a hose.
One course is usually chicken, fish, or meat. You would think that since you are eating with your hands to begin with, it would be quite okay to pick up a piece of flesh, caveman style, and gnaw on it. Unfortunately, this is another faux pas. The correct technique, though awkward, is to pin the meat to the bottom of your plate with your fingertips pointed downwards, and using your thumb only, shred bite-size pieces off of it. Try that without cramping up.
Since your hand is always speckled with edible particles up to your wrist, (which you have to ignore but can’t) there is no place to rest it between mouthfulls, so during a feed your arm continuously dangles in the air like an injured bird wing. I’m no weakling, but it does get fatiguing having an arm unsupported throughout an entire meal.
And how about these other major don’ts that don’t seem to make any sense to me at all, and which also seem to negate the most logical approaches to digital dining:
- You mustn’t tilt your head so your mouth points upwards, which is the ideal position from which to plop food into it. Instead, you have to keep your face level and fill it without the helping hand of gravity.
- You mustn’t make sucking noises while eating. These sounds occur when you use mouth inhalation to vacuum food inwards off of your finger tips through puckered lips. This is deemed highly uncouth even though it is a highly efficient food delivery technique
- You display a complete lack of refinement if you pick up a bowl and sip it like a cup. Too bad, because this would have solved a multitude of my dining difficulties.
With all the most obvious eating strategies denied, you may be wondering how then do Sri Lankans eat their meals.
From careful observation of the other diners, I discovered their secret; it is all in the rice ball. The rice ball is hand formed of course, and this is the platform from which the rest of your meal is consumed.
To make a proper rice ball, you grab a palm full of rice and squeeze it inside your fist for all you’re worth until it is compacted into the size of a prune. By squeezing all the air out of it, this breaks down the cell walls of the individual rice granules, and through the principle of capillary action, it is now able to, sponge-like, sop up quadruple its weight of anything it is dipped into. A well constructed rice ball also takes on a Velcro-like stickiness and solid food matter easily adheres to it.
However, making an efficient rice ball is harder than as it looks. If your rice ball is not sufficiently compressed, as soon as it touches a sauce or a gravy it will disintegrate like a dunked donut in hot coffee and you are back where you started.
The ultimate task of the entire meal is getting the rice ball into your mouth, and remember, dropping it in and sucking it in have been ruled out. What you have to do is balance the food impregnated rice ball on slightly curled fingertips, bring it up to your opened lips, and with a flick of your thumb from behind, shoot the rice ball in like a marble, not too hard though or you’ll wind up on the wrong end of a Heimlich maneuver.
While chewing, your hand returns to your plate to prepare the next rice ball as you decide which sauces and entree to adorn it with next. Slowly, like bailing out a boat, you begin to see the bottom of your bowls and dishes, and then it is finally time to go home and shower.
I wasn’t sure which of the many plates in front of me were meant as condiments and which were the side courses, so I ate everything in sight just in case, accompanied by a heck of a lot of rice, and at the end of the meal I was stuffed. Then the only Ceylonese dining custom I actually appreciate comes into play: it is perfectly legal to let out a hearty belch when finished. In fact, this is considered by the dining room staff as a compliment for their provision of a fine meal.