Culture

Why Food Tastes Better When You Eat With Your Hands

In many cultures, eating with hands is the norm, engendering a deeper connection with food and the people around you.

January 11, 2020
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

My father-in-law is an engineer. He worked his entire professional life for an electric utility company that oversaw the construction and expansion of power lines throughout the Western Indian state of Maharashtra. In 1984 he was sent to Sweden for an exchange of technical know-how. One night, at a banquet in his honor, his Swedish hosts served Indian food (as he was a lifelong lacto-vegetarian). It was a formal affair. A knife, fork, and a spoon were elegantly placed next to each plate. There was a toast, and then everyone began to eat.

Now, my father-in-law does not remember what was served. But what he does remember is that, after a few minutes, he looked around, put his cutlery down, and raised his feet to sit cross-legged in his chair. Then, he did something else, much to his hosts’ astonishment: He started eating with his hands.

When asked why he was dining like that, he said, “Indian food tastes infinitely better when you eat it with your hands.” After a brief pause, one man next to him chimed in, “Yes, it certainly does, Mr. Rathi.” And soon the entire room was eating with their hands.


Growing up, we weren't allowed to sit at the dinner table without washing our hands and feet. The washing of feet is an Indian custom from an era back when dining tables were not de rigueur and the norm was to sit on a special floor mat on the ground or on an elevated wooden board. And, of course, the washing of hands is important for obvious reasons, but there was a design to it: When eating with your hands, you only use your fingertips, and only those on the right hand. (The left hand is used to serve the food.)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“When my brothers and I were babies, my mom encouraged us to discover foods and food textures by letting us eat with our hands. It encouraged us to love everything. My brother does the same with his 7 months old baby, who has just started eating solid food. Same with cooking. I think doing as much with your hands is better. Especially when baking.”
— MarieGlobetrotter
Comment

There’s an emotional aspect to eating like this. I couldn’t, for instance, eat my favorite comfort foods with a fork or a spoon if I tried. Rice, dal, pithla, khichdi—the comfort of these dishes is gone if I cannot mix them with my forefingers; if I do not devour every last vestige from my plate (which is impossible with silverware); if the warmth of the rice does not dye my fingertips crimson and leave me wanting more. I have to hand-stir the mango pickle with my rice and dal, not least because there are pits; it’s a crime to let any flesh stuck to the pit go to waste, and this extraction happens most efficiently with fingers and teeth. Eating roti and sabji—cooked vegetables—with anything other than my hands feels wrong. Anyway, how would you scoop out the vegetables with a piece of roti if not by hand?

My mother-in-law put it succinctly when I asked her why we eat with our hands. According to her, it engenders a deeper connection with food. As soon as you take that first bite, an inextricable link is formed between your hand, mouth, and food. Spoons and forks interfere with this connection.

One could also find an explanation in Ayurveda, the holistic science of healing which stems from the Vedas, ancient India’s religious scriptures. Hands are the most valued organ as per Ayurveda (“Ayur” meaning life, “veda” meaning knowledge), and each finger of the hand is associated with the five elements of nature: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. When the fingertips come together in a bowl formation and touch food, the five elements are stimulated, along with the digestive juices, simultaneously nourishing the body, mind, and spirit. The direct touch results, as well, in a more intimate feel for texture, taste, and portion size.

...it engenders a deeper connection with food. As soon as you take that first bite, an inextricable link is formed between your hand, mouth, and food. Spoons and forks interfere with this connection.

India is not the only country that eats with their hands. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East also use their hands for eating. But unlike in India, table culture in Ethiopia and Eritrea involves sharing from a single communal plate (individual plates are considered wasteful, and take away from the social bond that comes with eating from the same platter). The Arabian states of the Middle East also believe in eating from a common plate and scooping food with the right hand. What this custom allows for is the tasting of each and every dish brought to the table, as passing on any particular dish may be considered disrespectful to the host, and to the food.

With the growing popularity of immigrant cuisines in the United States, the stigma surrounding eating with one’s hands seems to be reducing. But I doubt if I would be able to do what my father-in-law did more than 25 years ago. Even if I were to go to, say, an Indian fine-dining restaurant, would I eat dal with rice the way I eat it at home? I should turn to Sameen Rushdie, who writes in her exquisite book Indian Cookery, “The secret of pleasurable eating is not to feel constrained by rules, especially those invented by ‘polite society,’ whatever its ethnicity.”

Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nishanehwal
    nishanehwal
  • John Khalil
    John Khalil
  • M
    M
  • MarieGlobetrotter
    MarieGlobetrotter
  • Panfusine
    Panfusine
Comment
To some people's frustration, I like to talk about food before cooking, while cooking, while eating and of course after eating.

11 Comments

nishanehwal September 11, 2020
As much as your thinking is praised, it is very important to have a beautiful thinking to write a beautiful post and indeed such a beautiful post is rarely seen as much as the beautiful post you have written, it is a very beautiful of my life The post is what I saw today.
https://callgirlsingurugramnisha.blogspot.com/2020/08/you-can-choose-me-as-independent-call.html
 
John K. January 17, 2020
Loved this. Something I wrote back in 2016: https://sogoodcontent.tumblr.com/post/150736777048/food-for-thought
 
John K. January 17, 2020
UGHHH, the URL is no longer active.
 
M January 13, 2020
I think, like anything, that "connection" is not based on how you eat it, but how mindful you are while eating it. When one has been brought up with a certain and specific form of connection, adding/removing something (like cutlery) will definitely be an interference.

Ironic as it may seem, reading this piece gave me pretty palpable nostalgia for the exact opposite of what is being argued. I remember being taught how to properly use a knife and fork by close family members, a lesson that made me very mindful of what I was eating because I had to start focusing on the food, how I assembled it, speared it, and brought it to my mouth. Even now there are elements of using silverware and experiencing my meal that I can connect with the personalities and histories of the people who taught me -- people who are now long gone.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. January 13, 2020
Thank you, M! I appreciate your contrary point of view. Glad that this article evoked that in you.
 
MarieGlobetrotter January 12, 2020
I really agree with you. I worked in Ghana, Rwanda and Ethiopia for a few months and we ate with our hands, sometime sharing the same plate some time not. I loved it. When my brothers and I were babies, my mom encouraged us to discover foods and food textures by letting us eat with our hands. It encouraged us to love everything. My brother does the same with his 7 months old baby, who has just started eating solid food.
Same with cooking. I think doing as much with your hands is better. Especially when baking.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. January 13, 2020
Thank you for your comment and thoughts!
 
Panfusine January 11, 2020
I get reminded of a line from a book (either Raghavan Iyer or Monica Bhide's) .. 'Eating Indian food with cutlery is like making love via an interpreter'. The textural aspect of feeling the food with the fingertips can never be experienced with a knife and fork.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. January 13, 2020
This comment just about sums up the entire article :)
 
coneil January 11, 2020
The British food writer Jay Rayner in "The Ten (Food) Commandments" lists "Thou shalt eat with thy hands" as the first commandment.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. January 13, 2020
Thank you!