Indian Food – Eating From a Lotus Leaf

We have been staying with a family in a gold-mining town. Uma, our host, lives with her parents and her young son Nigel on the outskirts of town. She suggested we should visit one of her aunties and family for a celebration. It takes a bit of patience but we are rewarded with how it feels to eat with our fingers again. (For some reason we have no photos of this particular day, but these will give you an impression of Guyana’s countryside).

Uma’s family had a sleepless night. One of the visiting relatives has been terribly sick and had kept everybody up and busy. As we slept in our Land Cruiser we hadn’t noticed a thing. Uma goes to the hospital with her relatives.

What’s a Few?

“We’ll be back in a few,” she says.In Guyana, “a few” can be anything from 5 minutes to many hours. We drink our coffee and I ask Uma’s mother if we will still be going to Aunty. Not that it matters to us, I understand they are awfully busy, but it would be nice to know because of our own plans for the day and we have learned all too often in the past how these kinds of days unfold.

In Guyana, “a few” can be anything from 5 minutes to many hours. We drink our coffee and I ask Uma’s mother if we will still be going to Aunty. Not that it matters to us, I understand they are awfully busy, but it would be nice to know because of our own plans for the day and we have learned all too often in the past how these kinds of days unfold.

Throughout our years of traveling I have learned not to mind that leaving in the morning may mean leaving at 5 pm, however, I have never grown accustomed to enjoying doing nothing in those hours in between, and forever being told ‘we’ll be leaving shortly’. I just don’t have that patience, and frankly, I don’t want to have that patience – there are too many other interesting things I can do with my time. To the best of my ability I try to find a way not to give offense to others (generally our hosts) yet to use my time the way I like – which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.

“We’ll go in the afternoon,” Uma’s mother answers.”That’s no problem. Would that be before or after lunch?”

“That’s no problem. Would that be before or after lunch?”

“After.”

“Okay. So shall we check in around 1 or 2 to see what’s happening?”I get neither “No”

I get neither “No” nor “Yes”; more of a nothing with a bit of mumbling,”Well, we may go at 11 and see if we can find you on the road.”On such occasions a cell phone would be handy, I conclude. But we don’t carry one.

On such occasions a cell phone would be handy, I conclude. But we don’t carry one.”Well, why don’t we check in at 11 then?” I suggest.

“Well, why don’t we check in at 11 then?” I suggest.It now becomes clear that this was the right suggestion. Pfew.

It now becomes clear that this was the right suggestion. Pfew. Here face lights up.”Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

Time to Go. Or not?

We can predict what will (and does) happen. We return around 11.30, in no particular hurry because there is no reason for it. Uma meanwhile has returned from the hospital and informs us that her relatives will return from the hospital in half an hour or so (which eventually will be at 2.30), because “they called and said they would be here in half an hour or so, and that was a long time ago.”

At 3 we gather to leave, only to discover Uma’s mother and the relatives (for whom we had been waiting) are not coming after all. Oh, well… Uma’s question is whether we first want to take a dip in the waterfall and then go to Aunty or the other way around.

“Whatever suits you best,” I answer.It really doesn’t matter to me although I just know – even without knowing the location of that waterfall on a map – that doing both is never going to work before dark (at 6 pm), so it’s going to be one or the other. She can’t decide. Coen can. We had two slices of chewy bread for breakfast so our stomachs are protesting.

It really doesn’t matter to me although I just know – even without knowing the location of that waterfall on a map – that doing both is never going to work before dark (at 6 pm), so it’s going to be one or the other. She can’t decide. Coen can. We had two slices of chewy bread for breakfast so our stomachs are protesting.

Off we go. Nigel and I climb in the back of the Land Cruiser. Uma sits in the passenger seat to give Coen directions. We are having fun. Coen maneuvers through and around endless potholes in the unpaved road caused by overloaded mining trucks.”Go in the water!” Nigel instructs from the back.

“Go in the water!” Nigel instructs from the back.”Yippie,” he exclaims as the Land Cruiser sinks into the umpteenth hole and resurfaces.

“Yippie,” he exclaims as the Land Cruiser sinks into the umpteenth hole and resurfaces.

Traveling with a young child gets you to look at the world with fresh eyes. Nigel is not bothered at all by the rough shaking of the Land Cruiser. With ease he stretches out on his stomach, his head resting on his hands and watches the world through the rear or side windows. I lie down next to him and we point out the houses we see and the tallest palm tree.

Meeting the Family

When we met Uma and her family two days earlier I didn’t understand a word he had been saying. But Nigel quickly adjusted his Creole to proper, five-year-old boys’ English. He loses it the minute we’re gone (for the night, or day) and talks Creole with his relatives. It takes a minute to switch and he’s back to English-English again.

When we met Uma and her family two days earlier I didn’t understand a word he had been saying. But Nigel quickly adjusted his Creole to proper, five-year-old boys’ English. He loses it the minute we’re gone (for the night, or day) and talks Creole with his relatives. It takes a minute to switch and he’s back to English-English again.

We stop at a house of wood on cement stilts. The house looks down a steep hill that the family has cultivated to grow crops and where their land ends, the forest begins. Monkeys and baboons (as the red howler monkey is locally called) are a common sight.About 12-15 persons are awaiting us. We shake hands, hear names and forget them just as easily – there are too many.

I can see from their looks that they are curious to meet these foreigners who live in a car. It doesn’t happen often, but here the women  (instead of men) are the first to walk up to the road and ask to see the interior of the Land Cruiser and it’s especially the women who like to listen to the stories about our journey.

About 12-15 persons are awaiting us. I can see from their looks that they are curious to meet these foreigners who live in a car. It doesn’t happen often, but here the women  (instead of men) are the first to walk up to the road and ask to see the interior of the Land Cruiser and it’s especially the women who like to listen to the stories about our journey.

India and India in Guyana

We try to get the conversation going by asking about similarities or differences with India, as they are of Indian descent. We ask about their puja rituals, the gods they pay obeisance to. As we arrive late in the afternoon we missed all rituals (for the first birthday of a cousin) and they have already eaten. This means we will be eating alone and each bite will be scrutinized by a dozen people.

They ask if we would like to eat from a plate. It is obvious to us they eat from leaves: leaves of the lotus flower and not banana leaves like they use in India. The lotus leaf is a beautiful round leaf, its shape forming a kind of cup, making it easy to keep it in one hand and eating with the other hand – or fingers. It’s simply a pleasure to eat from it.

I ask my usual, useless question, whether the food is spicy and get the just as usual and useless answer that it is not. I can’t remember anybody ever having answered, “Yes, this food is incredibly spicy.”

One way or another I’ll have to do this meal justice, I decide. These people got up at 3 am, washed and started cooking until they were done at 9 am when the puja rituals started.

The Shrine and The Meal

“Come on up,” one of the family members offers when we had been talking about puja rituals on our arrival. “I will show you the shrine we made this morning”.

Upstairs, in the living room stood the remains of an altar. It was a big, colorful disarray of a deity surrounded by food, flowers, and burned candles but we could see this had been something special. The family member explained they had also planted flags on bamboo sticks in the garden to say thanks.

When we returned downstairs the women had been waiting to serve us lunch and I had asked my useless question of how spicy the food was.

Two of them take the time to explain the ingredients of the 7 curries they have prepared. Sometimes I put a bit on my leaf, tasting it. It appears that for once I am among people who have the same notion of spicy as I do, and I happily scoop spoonfuls of the different dishes on my leaf. Among approving stares we dig in. We mix the curry and rice and bring it to our mouths with our fingers with an ease as if the last time we did this wasn’t 7 years ago but yesterday.

Fingers or Cutlery?

There is something incredibly satisfying in eating with your fingers. Only days ago we were staying with our friend Michel, who had invited another friend for dinner. I had met Zinita only once and had immediately liked her. And now I found, for the first time in my life, another person sitting cross-legged in a chair at the dining table, just as I like to do.

Coen had prepared dulce de leche (kind of caramel made from condensed milk) in the pressure cooker and Michel served it with watermelon and pineapple. Zinita tried it.

“Wow. Sorry. This I háve to eat with my fingers. It would be a shame not to,” she had exclaimed.

At the time it sounded somewhat exaggerated to me and I had continued using my cutlery, but I now realized again what she meant. Eating with your fingers is an act of intimacy between you and the food; a connection that you don’t have when using cutlery. You and the food become one, blend. We love it. The intriguing question is why we don’t just make it part of our lives; I guess habits are deeply ingrained and not that easily lost or changed.

Additional Reading

For more stories on Guyana, see here or enjoy on our Landcruising Adventure website.

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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