The Beauty of Eating With Your Hands
At some point or another you have probably experienced the sweet satisfaction of eating with your hands. Maybe it was that large, floppy, triangular slice of New York-style pizza which you folded with your thumb and forefinger and aimed like an arrow towards your mouth. Maybe it was that big juicy burger you hoisted with two hands, judging the patty by its sheer heft and resting your fingertips on the buns to see if it had the right fluff to bounce ratio as though buying a new mattress for your tongue to lay on.
I am very familiar with eating with my hands. In fact, they have been my primary utensils for most of my life. I and many others around the world use our hands not only for traditional hand-held foods like burgers or pizzas but also for soupy rice dishes like rasam rice or flatbreads like chapathi/rotis. For various reasons, there is a stigma around eating foods like these with our hands even though most people can attest to how much more satisfying it is to eat a pizza or burger using your hands rather than using a knife and fork.
For folks who think it is weird to eat with your hands, here is what I want to convey to you. Eating with your hands is a beautiful and sensory way of connecting with the food you are eating. You can feel the warmth of the lentil sambar on your fingertips evoking warmth and joy even before it hits your mouth. You can feel the fluffy-ness of the masala potatoes giving your index fingers no resistance when you pinch, indicating they are cooked to perfection. Lastly, you can easily combine the perfect ratio of Thayir satham (yogurt rice) and red mango pickle (pictured above), creating the perfect swirl of tang and spice.
Etiquette for Eating With Your Hands
Despite the undeniable sensation that eating with your hands provides, some may say that it is improper. On the contrary, eating with your hands has just as much etiquette as going to high tea with the Queen. The rules are pretty simple, but whether one follows them or not shows the difference between a novice and one that regularly eats with her hands. The rules are as follows:
- Wash your hands before and after eating (for obvious sanitary reasons!).
- Always eat with your right hand. This rule originally comes from the fact that you eat with one hand and “clean yourself” with the other. However, in this modern day, I say you don’t necessarily have to choose your right hand -- but choose one and stick to it!
- When grabbing more food from the communal pot use your left hand to handle the utensils. Since your right (eating) hand has your germs, you should use your other (clean) hand to pick up utensils for the communal pot.
- Only your fingers should touch the food. Your palms should be totally clean while eating. This rule ensures that you are pursing the food with your fingertips properly and are therefore able to gracefully guide it to your mouth without spilling. My mom even goes as far as saying that the only the first two segments of your fingers should touch the food.
- Use three out of four fingers besides your thumb to guide the food into your mouth, either omitting your forefinger or pinky. The reasoning here is that it’s just really hard to fit all the fingers into your mouth. So much like you stick out your pinky when drinking a cup’o’tea, you should leave this finger out from the rest when transitioning the food from your hands to your mouth!
The last thing I want to leave you all with is enjoy the experience! Honestly, it will make any Indian aunty feel so happy to see you try to eat with your hands. Rules one through three are non-negotiable, but other than that try your best and it will go a long way.
Sheila Crye says
Thank you for your enlightening post about the Indian etiquette of eating with one's hand. I have been curious about how it is done. Here are some more questions about Indian table manners: Does the whole family eat together, or do the children eat separately from the adults? Is the family seated in chairs around a table? Is the mother or the servant preparing flatbread while the family is eating? Is the communal pot passed around the table, or is there an order in which the food is distributed? Are there certain table conversation topics that are preferred, and others that are taboo?
Shri Repp says
This makes me so happy Sheila! I'm so glad that this post was useful. So here are some answers to the questions you asked above. All of these answers are generalizations of course so please keep that in mind...
Does the whole family eat together, or do the children eat separately from the adults? Is the family seated in chairs around a table? A lot of families living in India live in a large joint family with different generations living under one roof. The matriarch of the house (my grandma or my mom) along with a maid if the family can afford it help serve food to everyone. People can also serve themselves and pass food along with their non-eating hand but i've seen that the matriarch is usually present at the table making sure everyone has eaten and making note of what people enjoyed during the meal. If there are small children in the house, they tend to be seated at chairs around the same table with mothers feeding them first before they enjoy their meals.
Is the family seated in chairs around a table? Is the mother or the servant preparing flatbread while the family is eating? The food that is made is often put in large metal tupperware that is designed to keep in heat so the food remains warm while everyone is eating. Food that is kept warm is usually brought out in small quantities from the stove and put on in the tupperware and periodically filled as new family members/guests cycle in for food at the table. This includes flatbread like chapathi (roti) and other grilled flatbread. It's usually made in large quantities and placed in the tupperware right after being made. If it's fried flatbreads like poori, they are usually made fresh and hot by someone in the kitchen and brought to the table either by the matriarch, maid, or someone who has finished eating.
Is the communal pot passed around the table, or is there an order in which the food is distributed? It's usually the guests as well as elders in the house who get given the food first as a sign of respect. However, there are usually many dishes at the table at once, so folks take turns and pass food while serving themselves and sometimes the matriarchs insist on helping serve the food to guests as well.
Are there certain table conversation topics that are preferred, and others that are taboo? I don't think there is a universal answer for this question. I think it varies drastically from family to family 🙂