It's more difficult than I thought it would be, eating with our hands. No chopsticks here, or even the strange double-handed fork-and-spoon combination of Malaysia. Most of the restaurants we've been patronizing (cheap and busy) are all-local establishments, and while the waiters sometimes bring us a teaspoon or two, having read or seen somewhere that foreigners need tools to get food in their mouths, we are trying to go native.
Rule number one of eating with our hands seems to be that there's no 'hands' about it. In India and other places in South East Asia and the Middle East, the left hand is used for dirty things like the bathroom and your shoes. That means your right hand has to do all the 'clean' things which so far seems to be eating and shaking hands. It's harder than I thought to repress the urge to just pick up some food with both hands. Try eating a chicken wing one-handed, for example. Pretty tough.
After rule number one, I'm shaky as to what the other rules are, or if there are any. I carefully watch other diners, trying to see how they maneuver their food to their mouths, but it's hard to do that and eat at the same time. Some foods are easier. The breads aren't too bad—chapatti or naan breads are a little absorbent and they soak up the curry gravies.
Rice is another story.
Like in our favorite restaurant here in Thanjavur (Tanjore), the Srii Devhar's Cafe, which we discovered by accident while walking to and from the ever-closed tourism office. This all-vegetarian, all-you-can-eat place serves us each nine small, refillable pots of vegetable curry on a banana-leaf-lined platter, a second plate each brimming with tender short-grain rice, and as many poppadoms (chickpea flour crackers) as we ask for.
What we then do with all this food seems to be a source of good-natured amusement to the waitstaff.
First, we go wash our hands. Every restaurant has a hand-washing station. Quite a few have soap, though this one doesn't. Next, we use a chemical sanitizer to sanitize our hands. This always gets the other diners' necks craning.
Then, we take all the little pots of curry off of the metal eating platter. Most restaurants use only metal dishes and cups. Usually, the pots have left rings of water on the banana leaf, so we take tissues or napkins and wipe this off. The waiters usually stop what they're doing to watch us clean the, in their mind already clean, plate. Remember, for local people who are used to the water, they probably don't even notice it, let alone get sick from it.
Next, using the left hand to lift the dish but the right hand to touch the food, we shovel some rice onto the banana leaf. Then, we chose one or more of the curries to dump on the rice. Kneading the gravy into the rice sticks the grains together, and then we can lift small portions to our mouths, using primarily the tops of the fingers. We use four fingers to hold, and the thumb to push up from underneath.
A lot of rice escapes, but we're getting better. At least we think so. Judging from their facial expressions, the waiters aren't in agreement.
* * *
Thanjavur hasn't been all eating though.
We came here on the advice of a guy we met in the airport coming to India; he gave us his phone number in case we made it here but we were unable to reach him. It has been a good stop though. The town has two main tourist draws, the Royal Palace of the local aristocracy and the Brihadishwara Temple. The first day we explored, the second day we checked out the palace, the third we went to the temple and the last day we just relaxed, took vitamins and tried to shake off the cold I must have caught on the airplane.
The Royal Palace is in a walled part of the city that, from reading the guidebook, was once the nexus of an empire that reached all the way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The present palace, though, is now famous for King Serfoji II, a scholar in the 19th century who collected a lot of local artwork and local and foreign literature. We walked through the gallery of thousand-year-old statues and the library of palm-leaf books and English engravings for a glimpse of the path.
We also climbed the bell tower and met a group of hyperactive boys who wanted to talk to us all at the same time and practically pushed themselves off the walls to get us to take photos of them. We had a good time talking to them, but it was soured a little bit at the end when we figured out that they'd opened our backpacks (in mischief, rather than thievery, I think) without us knowing. Time to buy some padlocks, I guess.
It was a weekend to meet schoolkids, because the next afternoon while we were waiting for the sunset light to hit the golden sandstone of the 11th century Brahadishwara Temple, we were surrounded by kids on a field trip. Most of them just wanted to know our names or shake our hands, but some asked us to take their portraits, and none of them got into our bags.
Next stop: A town near Thanjavur, called Kumbakonam. Also recommended by our airport friend, it's described as a city of temples.
**Click here to see our photos of Southern India**
**Click here to see photos of food from Southern India**