Some thing was published in this blog earlier regarding the buffet style of serving and its repercussions. But if a survey is made on the diverse styles of eating across the world many noteworthy facts emerge which are interesting to a keen observer of food habits. As humans have to ingest food for their survival, they eat from an abundant and varied diet 3-4 times a day. There are cultural, social and environmental influences on the type of food eaten and the way it is consumed. According to the renowned French philosopher Roland Barthes "food is but a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behavior".Historically eating has been ritualistic and evolved over the years to differentiate the classes from one another whether based on economic criteria or social standing or religious basis or caste, community and color based, in different parts of the world. Globally standard practices of using crockery, cutlery, china, silver, linen, decorations, seating practices etc vary significantly in terms of quality of these wares used. But there are also wider differences in the practices of eating, depending on the cultural and traditions prevalent in the region.
Various factors that influence eating include survival strategies, agricultural patterns, industrial development, gender equality and familial structure. Eating is a physiological function associated with vitality but cultural and social factors have critical influence upon the act of eating. A few examples of eating traditions in some countries will illustrate the diversity in their practices. In Germany where people use knife and fork for transferring food from the plate to the mouth, fork is invariably held in the left hand for eating and knife in the right hand. Hand is directly used some times to eat some foods. The fork and knife are laid down parallel on the right side of the plate to signify end of the meal. In Japan chop sticks, used for eating food, are never pointed to any where except the food and they are never used to pierce any food on the plate. In the US fork is held in the right hand and is used for eating. When knife needs to be used, fork is switched to the left hand and after cutting, knife is shifted back to the left. In Middle East foods are eaten with right hand and use of fore finger and thumb to tear meat pieces is common. Rice is scooped up and the diner has to leave some food in the plate to signal the end of the dining. In Ethiopia Injera, a dosa like preparation made from fermented batter from Teff cereal is eaten from a large plate as big as 18-24 inches in diameter with side dishes arranged all around the plate inside and family members sit together around the table taking a bite from the same plate together.
India is a country where enormous diversity is noticed in eating customs. While in the North, use of thali, spoons and vattis, made of stainless steel or some times silver, are common, plantain leaves are the most commonly accepted material for serving food in the South. In some regions dried leaves, stitched together, usually circular in shape, are the serving material. Traditionally squatting on the floor is the common practice, though in urban areas dining tables and chairs have become standard features. In some rural areas of the country poor people still use plates and bowls made of earthen ware and instead of spoons, leaves from jack fruit are shaped and stitched for consuming liquid foods like kanji. Advent of synthetic plastics has introduced plates made from materials like melamine and others, which are more durable, besides being unbreakable. And in these days of 'disposables' plates and cups made from thin plastics and natural materials like arecanut sheath, dry leaves from banana plant, teak etc in combination with paper and plastics are also available. There is even a banana leaf simulating synthetic product looking like the original which is popular in the South.
Being a nation of multilinguistic, ethnic and cultural societies of varying history, the eating practices also show wide variations. Invariably the traditional eating has always been with right hand, though use of spoons and forks is increasingly becoming the norm in many families and restaurants. Propitiating the ancestors by offering the first few morsels of food to the crows before taking the meal is still in practice with some families. In Gujarat toasted papads and unsalted buttermilk are common adjuncts, a nutritionally right choice. Eating desserts is usually reserved as the last course in meals in western countries but in India traditionally yogurt or butter milk or their rice preparation form the last item on the menu. Probably a pro biotic like yogurt may be more appropriate for digestion than a sweet tasting dessert at the end. In some western countries coffee is taken after ingesting the main meal as it is believed to be a digestion aid. Ginger preparations in combination with butter milk also is served as a part of a heavy meal in some parts of India, presumably to help digestion. The concept of cross contamination probably is deeply ingrained in the Indian society where even amongst family members food is not exchanged between plates,once eating session starts.
Though eating with hands is often frowned upon by western societies (though 'finger licking' to taste food during preparation is still in vogue), the ground reality in India is that many of the typical foods popular in the country cannot be consumed easily with the knife and fork system. The major danger in using hand for eating the food is the microbial contamination that can be transferred from the hand, if dirty, to the stomach with some potential for adverse consequences and hand washing, before and after a meal, is invariably practiced by the people. The dexterity of human fingers cannot be expected to be achieved with any other man-made contraptions and the pleasure of eating a food with hands as experienced by Indians for centuries may not be easy to get from other systems of eating food. "Hand to Mouth" existence, literally, is loved and enjoyed by millions in Asia, Africa and South America!