By Kamrul Khan
I recently met up with a couple of friends at Korai Kitchen, a Bengali restaurant that’s been all the rave lately. They had traditional Bengali food with elegant decor and hospitality you’d expect at a Michelin rated restaurant. The familiar aroma of Bengali food hit me as soon as I entered; it reminded me of being a kid and waking up Saturday mornings, my mom would be cooking and I would know exactly what she was making from the smell.
After I got my first of many plates, I found myself looking around and having an internal conflict, ‘Should I eat with my hands or use utensils?’
Usually at most Bengali restaurants in Jamaica, Kensington, or Jackson Heights, I would have dove right in with my favorite five fingers and have no issues eating with my hands but the elegant atmosphere and the mostly non-desi crowd initiated this subconscious conversation about how I should dig in. I have to say that thinking back to that moment, I feel ashamed that I hesitated. Here I am, the co-founder of an organization all about empowerment and pride in our culture and people, and I’m questioning how I’ve eaten my entire life.
It’s interesting what foods are admissible by society to eat with our hands. No one would look at you twice if you ate BBQ chicken wings with your hands. How about pizza and fried chicken? The rules for pizza and fried chicken seem to be reversed, eating pizza with a knife and fork seems to be a violation of law, especially for New Yorkers.
But this was bhat! And I hesitated. Why? Maybe it stems from the middle school cafeteria, where I would be tormented if I ate with my hands, or kids questioning why my nails were so yellow. Imagine going to a nice restaurant, having steak with a fork and knife and then eating the side dish of rice with your hands. You would never.
But why the hell not?
Having rice with curry or some type of bhotta with a spoon is such a disappointment for your tastebuds. You could never mix the jhol and bhat with a spoon the way you could with your God given hands. It’s impossible. You were not raised by a Bengali mom if she didn’t used to make little balls of bhat and jhol or bhotta to feed you, making you count how many bites you had left. To me, eating bhat with bhotta that’s not completely mixed with your rice is like chewing coffee grinds and then chugging down a glass of hot water, it’s blasphemous.
I quickly came to my senses and decided to eat with my hands and enjoyed a wonderful meal. Korai Kitchen not only allows their customers to wash their hands, but actively encourages them to do so. It’s comforting to know that it’s a safe space to eat with your hands. Ultimately, I find that when I am eating with my hands I am so much more in tune with my food. Eating with a fork and knife leads me to just mindlessly stuff my face, not paying attention to what I’m eating. But, when I eat with my hands, I’m paying attention — I control the portion of my bite, the foods getting mixed together, and the proportion of the food that’s on my plate.