South Asia’s digestive enzyme
Hark ye— belching be the act of expelling air from thy stomach through thy mouth: t’will hold thee in good stead for thy Christmas gluttony but forget not the hand ‘fore thy mouth.
Belching and digestion are blood relations estranged since the end of babyhood.
It is generally believed that east of the Suez, belching after a meal appreciates the food’s gourmet credentials. In South Asia, however, belches acknowledge the food’s digestive properties. Respecting the cooking process and selecting spices proportionate to the ingredients triggers the breakdown of food into energy. The unprompted belch signals digestive victory.
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Hedonistically rich South Asian feasts incorporate digestive dishes and accompaniements: the belch reassures the hosts that the digestive tract is tickety boo.
Since men and women not of the immediate family eat separately at feasts, the volume of the belch was adjusted to reach far and wide.
Even in between meals, expulsion of intestinal gas or air from the mouth or lower down, noisily or in silence, are considered signs of good health, despite allopathic, ayurvedic and yunani medical solutions to the contrary. The belief is even expressed in a rather rude rhyme.
This obsession with digestion was thus among South Asians, and still is.
But then what about their British first cousins, who’d figured out the triangular relation between heart-healthiness, eating beans and farting?
A host will offer second and third helpings of a particular dish with arguments based on its digestive properties. It is also a polite host’s manner of easing the way for increased consumption under the guise of good digestion rather than greed. My wife managed to wean me off the habit of extolling the digestive merits of each dish when her English compatriots were at our table. However, the habit still tends to rear its head in defiance at the oddest of moments.
Accompanying salads, pickles, chutneys and raitas, doubtlessly stand-alone taste enhancers, are actually supporting elements for the main thrust of meat dishes which are a digestive challenge. So a wedding feast is invariably concluded by spinach and meat, the spinach ensuring against any risk of getting blocked.
The wise guest, hedging bets, will of course have a drink of isabgol da chilka— psylliam husk— before going to bed that evening.
In their Anglo-centric cultural myopia, the British unblinkingly lumped South Asian belching on the Middle Eastern logic. Hardly surprising when Collins & Lapierre’s acclaimed Freedom at Midnight remarks how little the British actually understood the Indian culture beyond what they needed to ensure their rule.
Mazhar Shah, Pakistan’s reigning celluloid villain of the 60s, summed up the relations between digestion and belching in one of his most famous lines: “I could eat up your whole family and not even belch”!
For the interested, listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SQsBWYeriM