Yoga nourishes our soul; food makes practice possible. But there’s more to food than nutrients. There are rich traditions we pass down from generation to generation. There are secret recipes, special prayers, and certain ways to make the table setting look just right. The content of these traditions not only depends on the family, but also on the culture. In this new series on Making Mealtime Meaningful, we examine the soul-nourishing traditions of various cultures that accompany body nourishment.
It seems only appropriate to start with India, the birthplace of yoga. When it comes to Indian dining, most of us are familiar with some of the more popular dishes that headline the dinner menu. I’ve had my fair share of saag paneer takeout, and I could write love sonnets over a perfectly sealed samosa, but Indian cuisine is more than that. There are traditions, meditations, and customs that reveal the love that Indians have for mealtime. Food is highly respected, and the traditions associated with eating are just as important as the nourishment itself.
In Indian culture, mealtime is considered a sacred event, and if a host extends multiple invitations to a guest, it is considered good manners to accept the offer. Come hungry—there will likely be lots of food and it’s considered rude to leave anything left on the plate. Not that you’ll want to.
Using Your Hands
Be sure to wash your hands before diving in; you’ll need them for the meal. Cutlery is scarcely used in Indian cuisine. Instead, diners use their hands to scoop the food (which is often a curry, vegetable, or meat dish), onto a type of flatbread (roti, chapti, or naan), and then bring the food up to their mouths. It’s important to use the right hand, not the left. While many Indian families may continue this practice simply out of tradition, historians believe that the practice of using the right hand came from the sacred belief that the right hand was reserved for activities associated with honor and nobility. This included entering a mosque, dressing oneself, shaking hands, and of course, breaking bread.
The actual activity of eating with the hand has both logical and spiritual value. Eating with the hands provides greater dexterity, allowing diners to gather their roti and curry with ease. Beyond that, the practice is believed to provide further connection to the food.
The tradition started in Vedic times, and Ayurvedic texts teach us that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements (air, fire, water, earth, space). When all fingers come together to collect food, it is said to improve awareness of the taste and inspire appreciation for the food’s nourishment.
Prayers and Meditations
Specific prayers and meditations often depend on the family and their belief system, but for the most part, Indians take the time to express gratitude for their food. In Hinduism, food is considered a gift from God, as it provides both mental and physical wellness. In some cases, diners will express a ritual called a “prasada,” or a meal consumed as a form of worship. This practice is said to help cleanse the mind, body, and spirit, and show devotion to God.
One especially lovely blessing is as follows: “This ritual is One. The food is One. We who offer the food are One. The fire of hunger is also One. All action is One. We who understand this are One.”
If you’re a vegetarian, you might consider a culinary vacation to India. Much of Indian’s population is vegetarian, and many of the iconic dishes (rajma, saag paneer, pakora), feature legumes, vegetables, and spices. Cattle are considered sacred animals in the Hindu religion, and so beef is not frequently consumed, nor is it available in most Indian restaurants. Pork is also occasionally avoided, as Indian Muslims believe that the meat is unhygienic.
While religious beliefs dictate the eating choices of many Indians, a large chunk of the vegetarian population avoids meat for cultural practices, meaning not every vegetarian is so for spiritual reasons. Regardless, the large number of vegetarians in Hinduism has led to the creation of a plethora of show-stoppingly good foods, each one so carefully spiced and simmered that it perfectly illustrates the care going into Indian cuisine.
We can learn a lot from the Indian culture. Perhaps we ought to show our food a little more respect, taking the time to connect to our food and savor each moment. Good food, like good people, deserve our full attention. In our mealtime, we discover a call to be mindful. Let’s take it.
Photo via iStock
Amanda Kohr is a 24-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. A regular contributor to Wanderlust, she also writes regularly for FiveTattvas.com. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet via her blog at cozycaravan.com.