Eating with your hands takes practice; there is more to it than meets the eye. Westerners are mesmerised when they visit India and observe the practice for themselves, dispelling the myth it’s unhygienic and messy.
Dishes like banana leaf platter, a traditional rice meal in Southern India cuisine, are only eaten with hands. Throughout India, it is believed food should feed more than the stomach; it should feed the spirit. The way to do this is to connect with the food by enjoying its smell, texture, and aroma. In Indian culture, using the hands to eat can be traced back to Ayurveda, which emphasises Ahar (diet) and Anna (food) and the belief that healthy nutrition nourishes the mind, body, and soul. Our fingers are believed to represent the five natural elements, and when the fingers touch food, a balance of the elements is provided to our bodies. This ensures the harmonious flow of energy. When you eat with your hands, your entire body becomes more aware of the food that is being consumed. Your fingers engage with the feel and texture. This sends messages to our brains telling it to get ready for some delicious food, more so than using cutlery. It makes us aware of what we are putting into our bodies, being aware of what is unhealthy, for example, and helping us stop overindulging. In addition, the pace at which we eat prevents us from eating fast, as we may do with a spoon.
Then there is paying homage. When you are served food, touching the food with your hands shows respect to the host. Ideally, food should only be touched with your fingertips and palms; also, the outsides of the fingers should not get messy. Many see licking your fingers as a sign of respect too. These are basic rules of etiquette when eating with your hands.
Remember, eating with your hands is more engaging than using various pieces of cutlery for each dish. Usually, foods can be mixed with other dishes to create bespoke flavours. Your hands are the perfect tool for this. It allows you to discover the diverse textures and tastes and textures in a way you’ll enjoy. Lastly, using your hands allows one to experience the satisfaction of the senses and promotes gastric health. Many who visit India do so on farm stays. Guests are served authentic Indian dishes on banana leaves or traditional earthenware. They encourage guests to enjoy food within rustic Indian environments, offering a glimpse of Indian culture while having a culinary experience. While India will always prefer the use of hands while savouring food, it recognises some foods are best used with cutlery. For example, desserts. Indians will use spoons where appropriate but will always endeavour to stay true to their heritage and customs. So next time you see an Indian eat with their hands, follow their example.