Are you,like me, put off by the sheer number of implements placed on a dinner table at formal parties or high class restaurants? Do you lose your appetite when you are forbidden to eat with your fingers? Are you from a culture that believes in tasting food and expressing appreciation of it audibly and visibly? Do you crave to lick your fingers after a nice spicy meal?

Then you will love this delicious piece from "The importance of Living by Lin Yutang:

"The Chinese idea of happiness is,as I have noted elsewhere, being "warm, well filled, dark and sweet"- referring to the condition of going to bed after a good supper. It is for this reason that a Chinese poet says, "A well filled stomach is indeed a great thing; all else is luxury." With this philosophy.therefore, the Chinese have no prudery about food, or about eating with gusto. When a chinese drinks a mouthful of good soup, he gives a hearty smack. Of course, that would be bad table manners in the West. on the other hand, I strongly suspect that Western table manners, compelling us to sip our soup noiselessly and eat our food quietly with the least expression of enjoyment, are the true reason for the arrested development of the art of cuisine. Why do the Westerners talk so softly and look so miserable and decent and respectable at their meals? Most Americans haven't got the good sense to take a chicken drumstick in their hand and chew it clean, b ut continue to pretend to play at it with a knife and fork, feeling utterly miserable and afraid to say a thing about it. This is criminal when the chicken is really good. As for the so-called table manners, I feel sure that the child gets his first initiation into the sorrows of this life when his mother forbids him to smack his lips. Such is humn psychology that if we don't express our joy, we soon cease to feel it even, and then follow dyspepsia, melancholia, neurasthenia and all the mental ailments peculiar to the adult life. One ought to imitate the French and sigh an "Ah!" when the waiter brings a good veal cutlet, and makes a sheer animal grunt like "Ummm!" after tasting the first mouthful. What shame is there in enjoying one's food, what shame in having a normal, healthy appetite? No, the chinese are different. They have bad table manners, but great enjoyment of a feast."

The Chinese seem to have their priorities right much like the members of the clan I come from. The enjoyment of the meal begins in our household even before the meal is cooked. The women discuss the menu and the right accompaniments to each dish . (Paruppu usili has to have morkozhambu and not any other sambar) and then the preparation is done with great care. After serving the meal, the person tasting the food is carefully watched for spontaneous reactions and then the women feel elated. They must be High-fiving each other in the kitchen out of excitement. On the contrary, if the food is eaten in total silence that is taken as a failure and the women folk spend the rest of the day depressed. And greater and greater care goes into the cooking until some visible , audible appreciation is elicited and then they feel that their existence is justified! I guess this is a value that one no longer associates with current generations who are more into fast food and spoon and tissue culture. What a colossal loss!
15 Responses
  1. hari Says:

    Hey Usha,

    Hmmmm. This post sure tastes good and you have produced the tingle in my tongue and it wants something spicy for dinner today.

    The meal is not complete until your finger is licked and rid of the last remaining flavour of the food you have eaten. I too like it that way.

  2. Shruthi Says:

    Lovely post. Usually, the places where I need to use a spoon and a fork and be prim and proper, are the places where the food is ho-hum. Wherever unnecessary, I do away with the spoon in no time and dig in with gusto, and yes, express audible sounds of delight too. No point in living if you cannot enjoy your meal. :)

  3. Paavai Says:

    True - I always keep some thayir sadam in the house when I have to attend these prim and proper parties ....

    Paruppu usili and mor kuzhambu - divine .. vatha kuzhambu sutta applam, milagu rasam and paruppu thugayal .. when you are upto it make a list of these combos.. :)-

  4. Pradeep Nair Says:

    How true what you say! Having food with some carelessness has its own fun, is it not.
    When I was in Sainik School, Kazhakootam (Kerala), we had what were called "Dinner Nights". With lots of formalities thrown in more often than not I never felt like having had a meal!

  5. Reading your post, I was reminded of this saucy (no pun intended) remark that I heard on a TV Travelogue -
    "Eating Masala Dosa with a fork and a spoon, is like making love through an interpreter"!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I belong to the category of your last paragraph. Love cooking.It is so therapeutic.Nothing beats it if someone really enjoys your cooking.That day is made for you.

    BTW I enjoy reading Le youtang too.
    I Possess an ancient copy that belongs to my FIL published in the late 40s. I have always admired and felt whatever he has written then applies so correctly to theses days too

  7. Mahadevan Says:

    I am certainly put off by the sheer number of tools on the dining table and yet, often I pretend to follow the norms. Honestly appreciate and look at the smile on the cook's face - it's worth a fortune.

    Having been brought up by some strict culinary codes like - not to make noise while sipping Payasam and Rasam- I feel embarassed when others indulge in it harmlessly at the nearby tables.

    Paruppu usili and morkuzhambu are certainly made for each other and I can walk miles to taste them. Usili with sambar would strike a discordant note, like playing cricket with hockey bat.

    I agree with Pavai that Vettakuzhambu --Chutta appalam and Mulagu Rasam- Paruppu thuvayal are some of the great discoveries down south. They dispense with vegetables. I certainly prefer them over a seven course lunch/dinner.

    Finally the dinining hall must be reverberated with rioteous laughter and that is the greatest tribute to the cook.

  8. hari Says:

    Hey Madhavan,

    Those combinations are just mouth watering. It cannot get any better. I am hungry just by reading them.

  9. josh Says:

    ya well mor kozhambu and all are cool, but the best thing to eat happen to be something called avakai annam and then of course perugu annam
    sorry usha, for breaking the tamil hold on the blog, but there is nothing which compares to eating perugu annam with a touch of avakai with it..:)
    and for all the people who do not know what avakai annam and perugu annam are,
    well they are pickle rice and the quintessential favorite "thayir sadam" :)
    keep eating with hands and licking with fingers and enjoy your food

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Do u remember an email conversation we had a few days back.. on home-food and morkozhambu? ;)

  11. Mahadevan Says:

    "Fast food " is a misnomer and one cannot logically conceive of fast food. Food is never eaten fast and if it is eaten fast, it is not food. 'Pizza' is ranked along with "fast foods". It is fast, neither from the point of view of cooking nor from the point of view of eating. Its dressing up needs more than half an hour and one can enjoy it for more than an hour.

  12. Ram Says:

    Reminds me of something that happened about a decade back, when I was in Madurai. In a hotel, while I was searching for weapons to attack my food (a plate of South Indian meals), a bunch of foreigners in a nearby temple were merrily eating with their hands (and smacking as well!) and looking quizzically at me!

  13. Usha Says:

    Hari: :)

    Shruthi:I wonder if the food tastes hohum precisely beacuse of the interference of the paraphernalia. Would love to eat with you some time. It is a sheer pleasure to watch someone eat with appreciation.

    Paavai: some other combos that quickly come to mind are vengaya sambar and potato fry, bisibelebath and boondi raita, thengai thogayal and sutta aplam,tomato rasam and fried appalam, chutney podi and sandige, curd rice and maavadu of course.

    Pradeep: Ya I agree there should be no rules for how you should attack your food.

    Rational fool: great analogy - wonder if anyone has tried it! Reminds me of an episode of "friends" where Monica has a date who is a Russian diplomat and so Phoebe is roped in as the date for his interpreter. And it is a hilarious episode.

    Shalini: I agree - cooking for someone else is therapeutic.

    Mahadevan: I agree. In fact the best meals I have had are those at my grandmother's place where we sat around her in a circle and she placed portions of mixed rice in our hands and we ate together exchanging jokes and riddles and stories and so much laughter. Never had that satisfaction in some of the finest restaurants I had the privelege to go to.

    Hari: More combinations in my response!

    Josh: Must try it sometime. Sounds yum.

    Kishore: yes, the combo was Morkozhambu and vendaikai curry right...mmmmmm. I remember.

    Mahadevan: I suppose burgers and sandwiches are fast?

    Ram: Crime, blasphemy. Implements for South Indian meal in Madurai -how COULD you?

  14. Aiyyo! Your post and all the comments are making me hungry! :)

    I am happy to tell you that I care not what the people at the next table think. I am very loud and clear with my appreciation of food (especially dessert). I never hesistate to walk up the the chefs and tell them exactly how wonderful I thought the food was! :) Finger-licking, Lip smacking appreciation is just my thing! :)
    Also, please see:

    This post reminded me of my uncle (who owned a restaurant) and would get very offended if we didn't burp loudly after a meal at his place. I felt helpless - I mean, I can't burp the alphabet or anything, or I would've burped "darn good food" out for him. Anyway, I would shower him and his wife with compliments - I hope that made up for it! :)

    By the way, Josh, I am a huge perugannam and avakai fan too! :) What a combination! Man, how about veydi annam with avakai and neyyi? Ok, I shall stop now before I get too homesick! :)

  15. I know people who eat fish with fork so that they dont have to wash their hands!