Use Your Hands!

Remember when you were little and your parents told you not to eat with your fingers? I’ve heard it as a child, and I’ve heard my friends tell their children as an adult. It’s rude. It’s gross. It’s bad manners. Maybe in the West…but not here! Unless you’re going to a fancy restaurant, you will not be given silverware. India is one of several places around the world where food is typically eaten sans cutlery – it is also the norm in many parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Eating with your hands is the traditional way to enjoy a meal. Eating is said to be a sensory experience. By eating with your hands, you are able to evoke passion and emotion. Ancient civilizations believed that one’s fingers represented the five elements.

  • Thumb – Space
  • Pointer – Air
  • Middle – Fire
  • Ring – Water
  • Pinkie – Earth

By eating with your fingers, you stimulate these elements and engage your stomach – the nerve endings in your fingertips stimulate digestion. Feeling your food tells your stomach that you’re ready to eat. This ancient method is gaining momentum in some trendy New York and Los Angeles restaurants and is dubbed hand-to-mouth eating.

The practice (read: art) of eating with your hands isn’t quite as easy as it looks. It required some practice to not look like the 2-year-old learning to eat at the dinner table. Most meals consist of a bread or a rice and a sauce, curry, or vegetable. The trick is to use your thumb. Use a small piece of the bread to scoop up some sauce, or mix some of the rice and sauce together, pick up using all five fingers, and propel it into your mouth with the thumb. Et voila! Just don’t put your fingers in your mouth.

There are some rules to properly eat with your hands, and what is culturally appropriate differs according to the region of India. But generally:

  • Only use 1 hand – the right hand. Sorry, lefties. This is a rule from ages ago that has stuck around. Hundreds of years ago, when there were lower standards for sanitation, each hand had a specific use. You wipe with the left, eat with the right. It is very rude to eat with your left hand (or shake hands, accept gifts, the list goes on).
  • Wash before and wash after – many restaurants will provide washing stations
  • No napkin – it is just not used during the meal, and it is quite improper to lick your fingers as well.
  • Lower your head, don’t raise your plate – if that saucy lump of rice is slipping, lower your head to meet your hand, don’t pick up your plate.
  • Use serving spoons – you eat with your fingers, but you serve with a spoon. Don’t use your fingers to serve yourself a second helping.

Though it is looked upon as unhygenic, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I actually quite like it. It’s kind of fun – though it took me a little while to do it in public. Now that I have improved my skills to meet the low bar of adequate, I no longer carry an emergency spoon in my purse. Next time you make rice, try eating it with your fingers and see how it goes. You might like it!

This is some masala dosa which is a South Indian staple. It’s a good beginner’s finger food. It is like a savory, stuffed pancake with dipping sauces and served on a banana leaf. No silverware needed here!

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