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.