After several hours and multiple hand washings, my fingers still bear the aroma of the leftover biryani I ate. It’s because, for the first time, I used my bare hands to consume the entire plate. I was copying the two Indian gents at Bawarchi Biryanis. When I saw how they ate, I was mesmerized. In between chews, they played with the rice as if poker champs handling their chips, picking up and letting the grains fall from their fingers as though they were strategizing their next move. Then, when they were ready for the next mouthful, they’d pinch the rice into a tiny pyramid before bringing it to their lips.
I considered ditching my own utensils and diving in with my hands right there, but since I’d already started with a spoon, it would’ve looked too obvious that I was copying them. Instead, I told myself I’d try it later. Besides, the restaurant’s biryani portions easily feed three people, so I’d have plenty left to take home.
When I finally did, I vowed to never eat biryani with a spoon again. It didn’t change the flavor or the fact that this dish—cooked in a process that patiently steams the rice with spices and meats—was still one of the best biryanis I’ve had in OC. But the entire experience was better using my hands. It was somehow more satisfying and more enjoyable. I didn’t realize it until now, but I’d been denying myself the tactile joys of this dish by using silverware.
I was able to feel the fluffiness of the rice not only in my mouth, but also on my fingers. And since I was hunched over more, with my face closer to the food, I smelled every spice and herb more intensely. Eating this way was also practical: Since I’d ordered the aavakai biryani, navigating the nooks and crannies of its bone-in chicken pieces with a spoon proved difficult, but with my fingers, it was effortless. I picked it clean and was able to portion equal amounts of meat for every mound of rice I ate.
Then there was the aavakai itself, which were nuclear-strength mango pickles whose saltiness was overpowering when not approached sparingly. With my hands, I was able to nibble on them little by little, as though it were a dill pickle on the side of a deli sandwich.
More than anything, eating this way reminded me of how my Indonesian grandmother ate when she was alive. She didn’t consume all her meals with her fingers, but she’d say some dishes weren’t the same with a spoon. I gather the two gents at Bawarchi Biryanis felt the same way. They started with a fork to eat their appetizer, a sizzling tandoor meat platter, but they set it aside when the biryani arrived. After that, they only used their spoons for scooping up raita and mirchi ka salan, a bowl of spicy peanut curry, both of which come as accompaniments.
I should mention I did end up using my hands at the restaurant when the dosa was served. With dosas, there really is no other way. You could try to take on the Mysore Masala Dosa with a fork, since it comes on a big plate and resembles a meal. But you’ll find yourself tearing up pieces with your hands as soon as you realize you need to dip every scrap into one of the three chutneys (a creamy coconut, a rich peanut and a marinara-like tomato). Whichever method you choose, you want to do it as quickly as possible. The edges start as porous and crisp as a French tuile, but since the Mysore Masala Dosa is also one of the few that has a spicy chutney brushed onto the inside fold and curried potato tucked near the center, time is of the essence. Wait too long, and the wafer-like crispness turns soggy.
But even if I’d ordered the so-called “70 MM Dosa,” which I assume is as spectacular as the wide-screen film format for which it’s named, I figure I’m always better off ignoring the utensils here. About the only thing you’d want to use a spoon for is the chicken tikka masala since it’s mostly gravy. The few chicken pieces in it were in perfect cubes, white meat designed for the Westerner to enjoy with a fork.
Still, I bet no one would blink if I took to it with my fingers. Bawarchi Biryanis is so casual I saw customers coming in wearing flip-flops. It’s supposedly part of a franchise that claims to be the “No. 1 Indian Chain in the USA.” But apart from the slickly produced menus, it doesn’t seem to be following any sort of corporate charter. The waiters aren’t uniformed and are kind of uncoordinated. And the woman who’s in charge of bringing out the food from the kitchen does her work in a housedress, resembling a mom who’d tell you to wash your hands before your meal. You should do it anyway—you’re going to use them.
Bawarchi Biryanis, 23809 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 699-2820; bawarchioc.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Entrées, $8.99-$15.99. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.