Hand to Mouth
Like all of the businesses on the block, the lights were out. All of the shop owners had migrated out to the streets, conversing with others, watching the night continue on. We eventually left the moonlight and entered a restaurant that was five shades darker inside than the sky was outside. A wall of heat and humidity built up like a sauna. I wasn’t sure how this whole eating Indian food business in the dark would play out. To even say that I fare well with popcorn in a movie theater would be an overstatement. Yet, I would attempt the task if it meant I could eat this food once again. Even without electricity, the cooks were working over their portable gas stoves, mixing curries and flipping dough for chapati in the air like pizza boys.
Just a few days earlier we had entered this same restaurant. After sleeping off a few hours of jet leg, we wandered outside sleepy eyed, using our instincts to move us in the right direction. We passed by the sari shops, a man at a fold out table selling Indian snack foods, and a convenience store with its entire store contents on display through the glass window; everything from coconut oil for the hair to skin whitening lotion for the face. Inside the restaurant, every plastic seat was filled with Indian friends and families, talking while nonchalantly mixing their rice and curry on sheets of banana leaf with their fingertips. Their fingers, covered in curry and rice moved like worms through their food, until eventually they would pinch a pile of rice with their fingertips, and then, using their thumb, push the food off of their fingers and into their mouths.
Our young South Indian server leaned over our laminate table and lit a long flimsy candle, tipping it until the wax dripped off the end. His dark chocolate face glowed in the candlelight, unfazed by the beads of sweat which broke into streams down his face. Quickly he stuck the candle’s bottom in the melted wax until it dried upright in place. His second candle tested his patience, continuously falling over. His eventual success left him with a permanent smile; his head broke out into a solitude dance of side to side head bobs. Hypnotized by the head bob and infatuated with our present life, I felt butterflies rush through my body, disbelieving that we were actually in Asia.
As we sat in the candlelight, close to invisible, my confidence began to rise. I thought maybe tonight I would attempt to eat with my hands as my utensils. And then, bam! The lights were back on and the air conditioning was pumping. Our waiter rushed over, head bobbing in excitement at our fantastic luck. The candles were blown out. Until next time.
While we waited with anticipation for Nacho to arrive on the boat to Kuala Lumpur, we explored a city of sky scrapers, high rises and a highway system that cobwebbed through every nook and cranny. Mixed in with all of the modernity were enormous mosques where calls of prayer echoed through the air, Taoist temples rested, Buddhist temples stood vibrant with their red Chinese lanterns, and Hindu temples, such as Sri Mahamariamman, were surrounded by flower sellers displaying their chunky necklaces of marigolds and chains of jasmine to tie in the hair.
Just on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves housed yet another impressive Hindu shrine. An enormous statue of Lord Subramaniam towered over the steps leading up to the cave’s entrance in a towering limestone outcropping. Entertaining monkeys scurried about, jumping through the trees and racing up the walls of the steps. While they were wild, they were also very used to people and what exotic foods we carried. One monkey did a quick hand grab, stealing from a tourist a bottle of Gatorade. As she watched, the monkey punctured the plastic with its teeth, sucking the remains of the orange liquid into its mouth.
During small talk with our Indian taxi driver on the way to the Thai embassy, our conversation moved towards cuisine.
“Eating food with your hands tastes different!! The Indians and the Malays, we eat with our hands.” Mimicking the motion of eating food, he pinched all of his fingers together in the air, “It tastes so much better! The Chinese know how to do it too. They are very smart using the chopsticks and their hands. But a spoon,” he wiggled his pointing finger from side to side, “That is no good. You must try with hands!” And by this he meant with his right hand. Indians never use their left hand for eating. It is strictly reserved for more unsanitary purposes.
To our great fortune we met a wonderful group of Malaysians through two separate but intermingling Kuala Lumpur Volkswagon clubs. Die hard Volkswagon lovers. Die hard food lovers willing to show us their favorite restaurants and answer all of my dumb questions. One of the members, Vijay, offered to make briyani; a traditional Indian dish of heavily spiced rice, meat and vegetables; and a rich, creamy platter of butter chicken. Kannan, who just so happens to be the fourth ranked mixologist in the world, made up a couple of gallons of sangria, and the stage was set. At our host’s house, I dug my fingers into my food. I don’t know if the food tasted so good because I was eating with my hands or if the chef was just that unbelievably good, but it was beautifully delicious.