In India, scooping up rice and curry with the fingers on your right hand instead of your fork or spoon isn’t any more normal than drinking beer chilled. It is a practice ingrained in children as soon as they start learning to eat on their own (which also happens at a very young age in India). It is also a practice far less messy and a lot more hygienic than that which is perceived by our utensil-loving friends. Why? Well for instance, only the top two rungs of your fingers get food on them, leaving the skins of your palms, wrists and sometimes your knuckles relatively untouched (unless of course you are new to this whole ‘eating with your hands’ experience and make a mess equivalent of a toddler left to eat spaghetti on their own). When you eat with your hands, you pay more attention to hygiene and wash your hands thoroughly with soap. That is why when you go to any restaurant in India (and other countries where eating with hands is a common practice), you will see a small wash basin with a soap. The wash basin may vary according to how remote a location you find yourself in, and may sometimes appear as a jug filled with water. It is the principle that counts though.
Eating is an all-involving sensory experience. Before the food reaches your tongue, you have already processed it using three of your senses; Sight, Smell and Sound. During preparation, you see the food before you and are able to smell its aromas and hear the sounds of it cooking. When you are about to eat, your eyes take in the dish, your nose smells it in its finality and your ears hear the sound of the food – the crack of the papad as it breaks or the sound of the kabab sizzling hot on your plate. As you eat, you engage a new sense – Taste. Your tongue and palate work together to taste the flavours. Yet one sense remains, restless and impatient for her chance to contribute to the sensory experience that is eating – Touch. With the advent of cutlery, the role of Touch has diminished during her favourite activity of eating. She watches sadly on the sidelines as all the other senses experience the delight of good food. She grudgingly holds the cold, metal utensils, her greatest obstacle to experiencing the food as profoundly as her siblings do so. It’s a bit dramatically told, but I believe senses have personalities of their own and certainly contribute to the development of our personas!
Drama aside, eating with your hands is encouraged in Ayurveda (the Hindu system of medicine which translates to the science/knowledge of life). Traditionally, every finger on your hand (and for that matter, every toe on your foot) is symbolic of earthly elements; your thumb represents fire, your index finger is symbolic of air, your middle finger indicates the heavens, your ring finger – the earth and the little finger is water of course! When you put these five fingers together, they form mudra, a hand position central in meditation, yoga and classical Indian dance forms. The mudra is what you eat with, and therefore all five fingers play a role in purifying and energising what goes into your body. So eating with your hands and fingers is in fact, a much healthier way of eating.
In the interests of presenting a well-rounded perspective on eating with your hands, there are a couple of downsides to this practice. Sometimes, your fingernails can become stained because of the spices used in Indian cuisines. This however isn’t permanent and will wear away after some days, as does the strong smells produced by the various spices. If you have an event coming up in which the aesthetics of your fingernails play an important role, you can ditch the fingers for cutlery in the days preceding the said event. Another downside is if the food is super hot, your finger might get a bit of a burning. However burning your fingers is far less worse than burning the tastebuds on your tongue and consequently, not being able to enjoy the ensuing flavours of your meal.
Eating with your hands is still practiced in Western cuisine with favourites like bread, tacos, fries, pizza, chocolate and burgers, to name a few, still being enjoyed by the trusty ol’ hands. Maybe that’s why they taste so damn good! If the practice is something that makes you feel uncomfortable, start doing it with Indian food and see just how much fun you can have. Then you can slowly work your way towards eating pasta, steak, and salad with your hands too! I guarantee that your food will also taste even better than it already does.