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Hand To Mouth Existence

Hand To Mouth Existence

January 29, 2013
The trickiness of eating with your hands.

I recently learned the unusual case of a south Indian man who has been living in London for three years. He recently suffered a particularly embarrassing episode at work. It had become the source of some distress. His colleagues, he thought, were looking at him oddly. Though it was never mentioned again, he would remember their perplexed facial expression each morning when he walked into the office. His crime? Eating with his hands. Or more specifically, eating Indian food with his hands. In front of white colleagues.

Now, Indian food might be the UK’s most popular cuisine. Britons like to pat themselves on the back for making it so. But there are some rules regarding the consumption of Indian food that are less widely discussed. Namely, how to eat it.

Eating with your hands isn’t unique only to India. It’s the norm whether you are from Africa, the Philippines or the middle-east. And it might come as a shock to some, but when it comes to pizza, hot dogs or other finger snacks, the west isn’t opposed to getting stuck in with its hands too. As cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey – who had been mocked by another chef for using her hands - told the South Asian Literature Festival last year, it is a “sensual pleasure to touch and feel the food you are eating”. But some foods being gripped by the fingertips are easier to stomach for some than others. Chips, a burger or a sandwich? Fine. Soupy chicken karahi scooped up with a naan? You better have a look around to see who’s around you.

Last year, the New York Times reported that restaurants were inspiring diners to part with considerable sums of cash for the privilege of escaping dinner table decorum to eat with their hands. It was a novelty, forcing customers to finger a dish on their plate and slip it between their lips without the distance of cutlery. Perhaps a few diners realised the pleasures of using their digits, went home, and threw their silverware in the bin. Most however probably retired their new discovery when they retired at the end of the night. The rule of western table etiquette is still: cutlery, good. Hands, bad.

In the same piece, author Amitav Ghosh lamented the atmosphere of Indian restaurants in London and New York. In these cities that pride themselves on ‘authentic’ dining, Gosh found that they neither encouraged nor discouraged diners to eat with their hands - the way that Indian food is consumed by millions of Indians across the world night after night. The rule for any restaurant aspiring to high dining – read: western dining – seems to be that the only thing your hand should be wrapped around is something silver and shiny. The separate Indian and non-Indian sections of 70s Indian restaurants might have disappeared, but certain attitudes have prevailed.

Perhaps it’s simply to do with the food’s potential messiness. But eating with your hands has its own etiquette. Most Indians know how to incur minimum spillage. And yet many are embarrassed to be seen doing it by westerners. The latter meanwhile are still derisive about anyone using the five pieces of cutlery they were born with. In a satirical scene from the film Delhi Belly, a female character sits at a lengthy dining table with her rich Indian parents to eat a banana. How does she do it? With her knife and fork. How civilised.

In Chinese restaurants, you are faced with two options. You can eat the food as it should be eaten: with chopsticks. Or you can opt for cutlery and admit defeat. Asking for a spoon comes with an admission of ineptitude. You have failed to engage with the food before you as it is eaten in its home country. Perhaps Indian restaurants need to enforce a similarly tacit rule. One where patrons are lightly coerced into eating with their hands. Because Indian cuisine has its own rules. And if westerners really want to interact with the customs that go with it, the choice between finger or fork should be a simple one.


    29.01.13 03:46 PM
    when you eat with your hand you should never feel odd doing it, because as you said, why some food is ok to eat with hand and some not. I think you get unique pleasure eating with hands. I'm never shy eating with hands when ever I go to restaurants. I do get few stares but that doesn't stop me enjoying the pleasure of licking each digits of my fingers.

    I think those who eat Indian food should always be told to eat it with their hands first, and as you said, when they have admitted the defeat then they should be given cutlery. :)

    One thing I always do is wash my hands properly before I sit down on any table to eat.
  • Isabel
    29.01.13 08:04 AM
    In India, I don't see any Indians eating with chopsticks in Chinese restaurants. That's because it can be difficult to eat with chopsticks if you're not used to it. It can be difficult to eat with cutlery if you're not used to it. And it can be difficult to eat with your hands if you're not used to it. Why coerce anyone to eat with / without the hands, with / without chopsticks. To each his own.
  • Anjana
    29.01.13 03:55 AM
    Pilipino too eat with the hands. Here in Canada one school was taken to court because they told one of the student not to eat with hands. The school lost the case.

    In UK one of the scientific research concluded that Indians do not have Alzymers or dementia because they eat with the hands.
    Using hand for eating is a kind of nerve exercise. As by using fingers we use our extremities or nerve endings to do a particular exercise.

    Eating with hands is difficult.
  • Bee
    29.01.13 03:46 AM
    LOL. I eat Indian foodd with my hands too.. its a different kind of fun. how can anyone eat a chapati or paratha with forks is beyond me!
  • Stuart Martin
    Stuart Martin
    29.01.13 03:21 AM
    I was raised by my Anglo-Indian single father, and he used to get mildly annoyed if we ate Indian food with anything BUT our fingers. As a result, I always eat Indian with only my fingers wherever possible. Unlike the thrust of your piece, though, the disapproving looks I get in Indian restaurants are mostly from desis. It is a source of constant amusement to me to see the disdainful sneers and frowns of desis watching me dining digitally.

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