The rains have ceased and clearer skies bless our days here in Kerala as the calendar turns a page to August. The words are only beginning to be murmured but sadya, kasavu, and Onam can put the life back in any Keralite’s soul. Food, clothing, and a festival – in translation – who could possibly ask for more! And one thing that binds them all together is how true to the land they stay. The sadya in particular, once you look beyond the fact that it’s an only-hands affair and is best had sitting cross-legged on the floor, is an example of food science, forms of energy, folk teachings, and more.
Looking up the sadya is easy; decoding it is interesting. To begin with, the sadya is notorious for demanding that it be eaten only by hand, sans cutlery. And the demand is justified by centuries-old teaching.
The practice of eating with one’s hands started from the Vedic times when people used to believe in and respect food. They believed that our bodies are in sync with the elements of nature. Ayurvedic texts teach that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements. The thumb is agni (fire) — you might have seen children sucking their thumb, this is nature’s way of aiding the digestion at an age when they are unable to chew; the forefinger is vayu (air), the middle finger is akash (ether — the tiny intercellular spaces in the human body), the ring finger is prithvi (earth) and the little finger is jal (water),” The joining of all fingers while eating was believed to improve our consciousness of the taste of the food we eat. Which brings to mind a chef once telling me that when most Kerala dishes are cooked in large brass-bottomed vessels, tradition has it that they are stirred in opposite directions alternately. This is to retain positive and negative (Yin and Yang) energy in the food.
The leaf, too, has much to do with the dining experience. For one, it is perennial; available all through the year and across the state, making the meal as local as possible. And it makes for a beautiful emotional experience. That one not only sees, smells, hears (mostly at the time of serving unless you have access to kitchens) and tastes the food, but also feels it. Over mundane stone-cold and lukewarm cutlery, the feel of fresh leaf is soothing. And it blends seamlessly with the produce served, making it an absolutely holistic experience.
Hands-on eating is also primal; comforting even that you don’t have the algorithms of placing cutlery right interfering with the meal. Feeling your food is a like a heads-up to your stomach, signaling “Incoming!” Millions of nerve endings in your fingers relay the message that you’re about to eat, including the temperature of the food, level of spiciness, etc. to prep the stomach for digestion. Handling the food with your fingers releases digestive juices and enzymes. Also, it requires you to be ‘present’, leaving no room for intruders (think gadgets).
Social experiments continue on hands-on eating in public and upscale restaurants across the globe are increasingly suggesting that certain meals are best had without cutlery. And here we are, a people and population taking it upon ourselves to share the pleasure of keeping it simple.