Today I had meetings up until 8 pm. As soon as they were over I took the subway to Little India. I was hoping to find some vegetarian curry with tofu. As I walked through the market area all I could find was carnivore curry, mainly with mutton. After looking around, I came to the conclusion that tofu is not a traditional Indian food. Actually I knew this but hoped, being in Singapore, they would have broken with tradition a bit and thrown some tofu in their curry.
For some reason I was being a bit more cautious than normal about the cleanliness of the restaurants in this place. I had just about decided to go to China Town to eat when I saw a restaurant that looked acceptable. They did not have the curry that I was hoping for but it was indoors and was moderately clean.
There were many people eating at this place, a good sign. As I walked in I noticed everyone’s left arm was resting on their left leg with their hand dangling as if it were paralyzed. No one used utensils. Everyone was using the fingers of their right hand to squeeze a bit of rice and what ever else was on their plate together then, shove it in their mouths. A few of the patrons looked awkward trying to tear flat bread with one hand.
This place served South Indian rice meals. I went to the back of the restaurant where the cooks were and where it appeared the ordering took place. A man asked me if he could help me. I asked if they had vegetarian dishes. He said yes and asked me if I wanted a vegetarian meal. It was too late to turn back. I said yes. He then asked if I wanted a few other things and although I had no idea what he asked me, I said sure. I did manage to order some fresh lime juice to go with what ever else it was I ordered.
I found an empty seat and sat down to wait for my order. I used this time to make observations to try to figure out the proper etiquette for eating. Basically the left hand was not to be used for anything (at least not in the dinning room). Whatever else you needed to do must be done with the right hand alone, no help from utensils and certainly no cheating with the left hand. To manage my fears, I kept telling myself that it is just part of the Indian culture to not use their left hand to eat, a tradition. There couldn’t be any justified, logical, necessary reason they couldn’t use their left hand. But then I realized if they have not abandoned the tradition of not using their left hands to eat, what makes me think they have abandoned the tradition of whatever they do use their left hands for?
Oh well, my meal was served. In front of me was a big pile of white rice with six piles of various vegetable dishes, seven small bowls of different sauces, and a very thin crispy round piece of bread. Now I don’t like getting my hands dirty and I really don’t like getting food all over me. I have had a number of people mention that they have never seen anyone eat nachos with a fork like I do (just so I don’t have to touch it with my hands), and I have avoided eating oranges my whole life because they are too messy to peel (until my son showed me how to peel them with a spoon to avoid most of the mess). I poured the sauces on the rice then grabbed some of one of the vegetable piles (they were not just vegetables they had sauces and unrecognizable stuff in them kind of like a small stir fry of some sorts), mixed the vegetables with the rice and sauces with my fingers (right hand), then squeezed the mix into a somewhat solid clump and shoved it in my mouth. Wow, it was fantastic! I kept mixing and squeezing and shoving as fast as I could. They later brought me more sauces and some much thicker fried bread. I watched others break the thin crispy bread on top of the rice pile and just mix the pieces in with the rest of the stuff, so I did the same. I notice everyone was having trouble tearing the thick fried bread with one hand so it didn’t worry me when I struggled too. I ate until I couldn’t eat any more. My stomach was bloated and simmered with Indian spices.
My only worry now was how to open my wallet with my right hand when it was covered with sauces and rice. I did try to wipe my hand with a small napkin, but I did not have good technique for cleaning one hand with itself. As I got up from the table a man motioned for me to go to the back of the restaurant. I didn’t think that was where I wanted to go but he seemed as if I would be breaking tradition if I did not go, so I did. I then noticed the big sign that said “Wash Hands” or was it “Wash Hand.” I don’t remember. I did have trouble washing one hand with itself but when I was alone at the washing station I cheated and used both hands, and washed the sauce off my face too.
It was the best meal I have had in Singapore and certainly one of my most memorable meals ever. Although in the back of my mind a little voice is telling me I should start taking my Flagyl and Cipro right now (it can’t be easy cooking with one hand, I’ll bet they cheat when no one is looking).
Footnote: I wrote this July 21, 2004 plus or minus a day. This was an email that I sent to some friends. Half of them felt obligated to explain to me why no one used their left hand in the restaurant (I already knew) and the other half had no idea why no one used their left hand. By the way, I didn't get sick at all. The photo was taken at the same restaurant on my next trip to Singapore later in 2004. I took it before I got my hands all messy.