Wally Olins: The joys of eating with your fingers

16 Apr,2014

This column, originally titled ‘How I Like to Eat’ appeared in Kyoorius magazine in December 2013. Republished with permission from the publisher.


By Wally Olins


The other day I went out to a very smart dinner party in London. There were about twelve people there. The men were all wearing dinner jackets and bow ties and the ladies wore very glamorous, expensive frocks. We all stood about in a rather grand room having drinks, then we drifted into a vast dining room. The shiny mahogany table was decorated with mountains of candles and silver and, when I looked down, I saw a vast mass of cutlery and glass. There were four knives on one side and four forks on the other side of my place setting and two spoons and forks and a knife on top, together with several glasses, all of different sizes and shapes. There were, of course, side plates, dinner plates and plates on top of the dinner plates, all exquisitely decorated – if you like that kind of thing. My table napkin was so large I was nearly choked by it. Water was served; still or sparkling? White wine. Then red wine. Then a different red wine in a different glass. And it went on and on.


Wally with students

Naturally, as the various courses were served, mostly small bits of hugely decorated pastry stuff, everybody chased the tiny portions around their plate with a small knife that wouldn’t cut and a fork that wouldn’t hold. We all delicately nibbled away, starting with the knife and fork on the outside and gradually moving inside. It went on like that for quite a long time. For ever.


Eventually a meat dish arrived. I just couldn’t properly slice or spear the piece of meat clinging to a fine bone on my dinner plate. It kept on slipping around. Eventually, I surreptitiously picked it up with my fingers, which I hid behind my vast napkin. That’s when I began to think how much nicer food tastes when you eat it like that. There’s something about cutlery and the whole paraphernalia of the way food is served in the west which seems to me to undermine its taste.


Why can’t we eat with our fingers? I so much prefer sitting (not on the floor with knees crossed though) – just sitting, on a chair, at a table, tearing the naans and parathas apart while chomping away at some marvellous tandoori and rice and pilau and biryani and fish curry with lots of sauces on the side. It’s so much tastier and so much more fun. And I’m quite content with the Kingfisher beer that goes with it.


India, for me, in the eating department you win hands down.


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