Bittermelons and Brownies: How to eat a good bite (lokma)

It used to be general practice for South Asian mom’s to hand-feed their children rice until they developed the dexterity to eat on their own. I continued that practice with my own kids by mixing the various curries with their rice and shaping small sized globes of rice. When they got to be three or four, I would make the bites, the lokmas, and arrange them on their plates, for them to pick up with their right hand and pop into their mouths. As you know, there are rules to learn and practice: right hand, finger tips, no food should touch the palm. The Bengali word for the curry mixed and formed rice bite is LOKMA.  

Mixing and eating with the hand offers two advantages. First, in mixing the rice breaks down and the curries adhere to the rice. Second, each bite can be individually tailored. One bite can have added chilies, one bite can have more vegetable, another can have more meat, maybe you go adventurous and mix otherwise unmixed curries. The possibilities become limitless. By forcing the hand eating experience into fork and plate environment a lot of the flavor is lost in the name of civilization.

Eating curries and rice with a fork is immensely unsatisfying. Here’s why:

Any braised meat or vegetable dish cooked with spices (otherwise known as curry) was historically meant to be eaten with rice (or bread).  Never alone! Rice is the main dish. Everything else, including meats, merely garnish and flavor. This is why in South Asia the question asked of family and friends is “did you eat rice?” instead of “did you eat lunch or dinner?”

Rice is served at the center of the plate ready to receive the courses of bittermelon, daal, vegetable bhaji and meats. The rice, whatever it is, jasmine, basmati or brown, is the final component that softens, absorbs and most importantly FLAVORS curries.  Hence, first problem about eating with a fork is substantive. A fork-ready bite requires a higher proportion of flavoring, bhaji or curry than hand mixing. We can no longer eat enhanced spiced rice.  Instead, the fork is the instrument that converts rice into a side dish at restaurants.

Second problem is formal. We are missing the optimal flavor when eating with a fork. The mixing of curry to rice with a fork is always incomplete. It is difficult to break down the rice enough for the curry to be absorbed. Eating with my hand I can press the rice together with the curry just enough to adhere on its journey to my mouth. That moment of adherence, when the rice forms a compressed bite, is the perfect amount of curry to rice ratio.

Third problem with fork deshi (South Asian)-eating is textural.  The feel of our food is part of the pleasure. The creaminess of rezala (chicken cooked in yogurt and onions) or the bright-spiced oil of fried eggplant mixed into the soft warm rice is a part of the experience. I can feel and pick out the cardamom, cinnamon stick and bay leaves to rest and perch gently on the side of my plate. I can pick up my chili pepper or my lemon quarter to enhance any bite I choose. I can’t eat fish with a fork because I can’t pick out the bones. Fish curry with bones tastes richer than fork-friendly curries using sliced fillets. The fork compromises the taste, texture of curries and the central role of rice. 

BUT, I have to admit, eating with my hand can be messy even when allowed and not frowned upon. And worse, despite all the washing in the world some pungent curries can refuse to leave.  The turmeric and cumin can stain the fingernails. I want to eat my curry not smell like it or wear it. 

The basic revulsion of eating with hands in the West would limit me from mixing each bite for my guests. Maybe I could form bites, like sushi, to be picked up with a fork. The hand eating experience would still be lacking but perhaps the taste can be recovered a bit?

This is quite a problem. How can I get the taste of a well hand-mixed bite of Deshi food with a fork? Can I design a fork/spoon that can form little rice bites? Disappointment, not necessity must be the mother of invention. I have yet to translate that experience of composed rice bites to the American table.  This is my design, cooking and eating challenge.

Take for example my dinner tonight: Chicken and potato curry, basmati rice and roasted vegetables. I mixed and mashed it as best I could with a fork and made bites with a cookie scoop. The bites did not form as well as hand mixing would allow.

But, it does give me an idea of building a 7 course meal with these premixed rice bites. Rice with Bittermelon (bitter), Rice with Dal (salty), Rice with Vegetables, Rice with fish (Garlic), Rice with Chicken (Ginger), Rice with Beef (spicy), Rice pudding (sweet).

Lokma: A bittersweet journey in 7 bites. This will have to be my next food design experiment.

I theorize that Amani’s love of tapas was latent in her childhood plate of radiating “lokmas.” She expects satisfaction from each bite of food and her standards can be high.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

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