Eating food with the hands in today’s times is perceived as being unhygienic, bad mannered and primitive. However within Indian culture there is an old saying that, eating food with your hands feeds not only the body but also the mind and the spirit. Have you ever thought of why previous generations in India ate with the hands? There is a whole science for this. The practice of eating with the hands originated within Ayurvedic teachings. The Vedic people knew about the power held in the hand as they are considered the most precious organ of action.
Our hands are said to be the conduits of the five elements. The Ayurvedic texts teach that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements. Through the thumb comes fire; through the forefinger, air; through the mid-finger, space; through the ring finger, earth and through the little finger it is water. Each finger aids in the transformation of food, before it passes on to internal digestion. Gathering the fingertips as they touch the food stimulates the five elements and invites Agni to bring forth the digestive juices. As well as improving digestion the person becomes more conscious of the tastes, textures and smells of the foods they are eating, which all adds to the pleasure of eating.
Can you imagine eating your super sinful chole bhature with your silverware? Apart from the practicality, the aroma is important too. Even after you wash, don’t you love that aroma that lingers on your hands. Later, you might hold up your hand to someone else and say “Smell my hand, see how good the food was and be transported back in the time when you were eating those!”
Last year lot of hue and cry was created when Oprah Winfrey said “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still!”, Well I would like to tell her that not only we STILL do that in the comforts of our homes, some of us even scoff at people who try to tackle their pakores, dosas, rotis and roasted chickens with cutlery. Eating your succulent galauti kebabs with a fork and knife is like having a hearty conversation with your lover through an interpreter, the message is delivered but the whole charm, the feel, the magic is lost! Similary the sensuous connection to the food, the feeling of sharing and, practicality (in that it’s easier to pluck that last bit of meat off the bones) avoiding waste.
I strongly believe that Indian food tastes best when eaten with one’s fingers because food is more than just protein, carbs and fat, it nourishes the mind, intellect and spirit. Eating should be sensual and mindful, employing all the senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Using your hands gives you a tangible connection with your food.
Eating with the hands is common in many areas of the world, including parts of Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East because ancient civilizations believed that it heightens the sensual connection to food and softens the formality of fine dining. Also I think it evokes great emotion, kindles something very warm, gentle and caressing. Using a fork and knife is almost like a weapon. If you don’t agree think of a time when you chose to feed a baby, we invariably end up using our hands and ditch the cutlery every single time. We are taught when we are old enough to hold forks and spoons not to eat with our hands, it is bad manners, and our hands are dirty. But eating with our hands is so primal, such a basic instinct and so universal.
My most fond memories of my childhood are the times when I was allowed the luxury of truly enjoying food with all of my senses and play with my food on the dining table. Thankfully my parents never forced me to eat using spoons and forks and let me create the mess with all the dal chawal. I was quite influenced by my south Indian maid who used to make these small balls of dal chawal and then eat and still enjoy dunking my hands in dal chawal and licking my fingers to eat those fabulous chutneys.
Studies have shown that eating with your hands gives you a more intimate connection with your food and you don’t eat as much. And there are health benefits besides. Digestion begins while handling the food. All of your senses are activated and your attention is brought to the now of the moment. Your hands change the composition of the food and at the same time brings in the sacredness. The most common benefit heard is that when eating with your hands, you are able to verify the temperature of the food before putting it into your mouth and in this way avoid the burning of your mouth in case the food is too hot.
I refuse to eat my Tangri Kebabs with a knife and fork, even in the most formal fine dine places. I don’t care if I’m all dressed up, if everyone else is eating with a knife and fork, if some Sauvignon Blanc is being paired with the meal because for me the entire romance of the Indian meal is lost if I use the cutlery, then it is only about feeding my body and not the soul!
I am not advocating to ditch the cutlery, all I am saying is there is a certain way to eat certain food and we shouldn’t be worried about some social disapproval by choosing to eat with hands and the truth is Indian food tastes best with hands and so be proud of it!
I will end this by asking this question, think of the time when you were loving fed by a loved one, mom, dad, grand mom or even that special person. Ask yourself was any cutlery used? I am sure most of you have that faint smile on your face now because chances are you were fed using hands
Written by Anuradha Gupta