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.)
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.
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