Eat with Your Hands was the title of a book by a New York chef and the subject of an article in January 2012 in the New York Times. It got me thinking.

In many parts of the world eating with the hands is common (Asia,  Africa and the Middle East).  Julie Sahni, cookbook author, says “Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon!.”  Or as chef Roy Choi from Califormia says, “ I see people cutting kalbi ribs like a steak and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.”  (excerpts from article).

My early memories are of a parent sitting close to me and coaxing me to eat by making smooth balls of cooked rice with the fingers, then using their fingers to place the ball in my mouth. This was intimate, caring and gentle.

Though I do use western utensils, I have never found Indian food to be very tasty nor a satisfying experience unless I eat it with my fingers. In fact, no matter how formal the occasion is, I eat just about everything (Indian and non-Indian food) with my fingers.

I am convinced that using my fingers to eat is integral to good eating – it heightens the awareness of what you eat and the sensory connection to the food.

It is a very natural way to eat, and when eating in company it breaks down formality, creating a social atmosphere.

Eating with your hands by Rakhee Chandra-Smyth
Photo by Rakhee Chandra-Smyth

Of course there is a dining etiquette to hand-to-mouth eating – almost ritualistic.

  • Use of fingers: In India, it is polite to use your thumb, pointer and middle finger and to let only the first two joints of those fingers touch the food. Messing up your palm while eating is considered bad manners. Breads, like roti, naan, puri or appam are used to scoop food. It takes some practice, but once you learn this way of eating, you’ll realise what you’ve been missing! 
  • Hand-washing: In many Indian households there is a sink near the dining area to wash up, prior to and immediately after eating. This is important for good hygiene and also the ritual of eating in this way.   
  • Prayer: Some say a prayer of thanks before the meal.  Only then can one start to eat.
  • Sitting down: It is natural for many to sit on a mat on the floor (the traditional way at a South Indian feast, served on a banana leaf). Many also consider this a sign of humility and a way of showing respect to the food and the host. Generally footwear is removed and legs are crossed or placed to the side.
  • Right hand rule: Like many Asian cultures, Indians consider the left hand as unclean, so food is not touched with the left hand. However the left hand is used to serve food onto the plate, and to drink water. The left hand is also used to gesture with when talking. 
  • Contamination: The concept of saliva contaminating food is common throughout India. According to this concept, any food, dish, or utensil that has come in contact with one’s saliva, lips or mouth is considered unclean and offering such food or items, or using a “contaminated” spoon for serving is considered rude and insulting. Also, the right hand, which is used for eating, is deemed to contain saliva, so nothing but one’s own food is touched with the right hand.
  • Burping and Licking: In many cultures burping after a meal is considered as a sign of satisfaction. Licking fingers, though not loudly, is also acceptable but not licking the bowl your food has been served in!. Cleaning your plate of leftover food or gravy can be done by swiping your finger continuously through the leftovers and then licking your finger.
  • Other rules: At formal gatherings, generally you do not begin to eat until the plate is fully served and the elders have started eating. Always take the host’s permission before leaving the table. Leaving food on your plate is considered impolite, a sign of disrespect to the food and also a signal to the host that you’ve not had enough!
The Indian Way Of Eating: My Challenge to You!

Start with some rice, the staple food of India. It is usually the first item that is placed on the plate. All other dishes are accompaniments to the rice.

  • Place a small quantity of rice in your dish, then pour a few spoonfuls of gravy,  the ‘curry,’ (such as dal or yoghurt), and using the tips of your fingers lightly mix the two together.
  • Pinch a small portion of the rice mixture using your thumb against the other fingers.
  • Now carefully place the thumb behind the rice, slightly curling the fingers. Lean a little towards your plate, bring the rice to your mouth and using your thumb slide the rice into your mouth – the fingers do not fully enter the mouth.
  • Fingers of the right hand stay on the plate throughout the meal.

Next time you’re sitting down to an Indian meal, try eating with your fingers for a whole new dining experience – the pukka Indian way!

[box_light]Join Teresa on a walking Indian food tour of Harris Park or buy her cookbook, Tastes and Traditions[/box_light]