Throughout my travels I’ve encountered all sorts of awful tourists.
On one hand, you have your ignorant travelers: Often Americans or Brits, they help perpetuate the fantastic reputation we’ve accumulated abroad by loudly questioning the sanitation of local foods and ignorantly trouncing around India wearing only the choli (the midriff baring shirt that goes under the sari – the cultural equivalent of being rather half dressed).
Then there are the better intending, yet equally annoying tourists who try too hard: They overcompensate their behavior to adhere to what they believe is the local custom, such as absolutely insisting on using chopsticks, somehow failing to notice that every local in a Malaysian restaurant is using a spoon, and hotly chastising fellow travelers who dare to take a meal at a fast-food chain, forgetting that it is their vacation, and they are in fact allowed to eat at non local restaurants.
(I’ll later include some more specific anecdotes of my favorite awful tourists.)
If I walked into an Indian restaurant back in my hometown and insisted on eating with my hands, I’d probably fall into the latter category of the awful tourist who tries too hard, based on it not being the local custom in the Americanized equivalent of the original.
However, the custom when actually in India is to eat with your hands, and it certainly isn’t because they don’t know how to use, or don’t have access to silverware. In short, it is hygiene related, as it means one must wash their hands before and after each meal, and no silverware is recycled, but the rationale transcends these basic observations. The reasoning is actually quite scientific.
The theory begins with three different classifications of foods: Satvvic (good/unaltered), Rajistic (hyper-energy stimulating), and Tamasic (the worst/lethargy inducing).
Then there is the correlation of the five senses, and the idea that food does not only feed the stomach, but your sense of smell, touch, sight, and ears.
Touch • Air
Taste • Water
Sight • Fire
Smell • Earth
Sound • Space (Ether)
Different beliefs consider specific parameters: That there should be variety in our food, and diversity in the color. Red is believed to yield the highest metabolic rate (attracting the eye first), while white yields the lowest (Satvvic). Additionally, the color green helps to abolish acidity, making the ideal backdrop for food on a green surface. Our ashram wholly embodies this particular parameter, and serves us our lunch everyday on a traditional banana leaf.
Furthermore, the use of your hands involves the most contact with your food, stimulating your sense of touch, and therefore intuiting a better sense of the consistency: dry, hard, wet, which is also said to improve metabolic rate and lead to higher satisfaction after eating.
A wide variety in every meal, it spans the entire banana leaf in an assortment of curries and chutneys to be consumed in tandem with rice to the eater’s personal discretion.
There are still many mysteries when it comes to this fascinating new world of Indian medicine and health practices, but my stomach is certainly going to miss the satvvic food!。