Last Updated on May 10, 2011 by Christine Kaaloa
How do you feel about eating with your hands?
For westerners, it’s a cultural taboo to “play with your food”. However, here in India it’s culturally feasible to do so.
My initiation into eating with my hands occurred when I met a pilgrimaging Hindu family in Gokarna.
They kindly invited me to eat with them after temple worship. It was in a large house by the beach offering free food to worshipers. Eating at the temple or at the designated temple dining hall is common after worship is performed. Foreigners aren’t allowed in any of the temples in Gokarna so I was hesitant to enter. Nevertheless, the family encouraged me on.
Learning to eat with my fingers inside a Hindu temple community meal room
The meal room was basic and minimal.
The concrete floor was mapped out with chalk lines, delineating seats. Each seat was sectioned out as a square block outlined by chalk. Hindu temple-goers sat in individual blocks, side by side in silence, awaiting their meals. Many Hindu families and devotees were there and as a foreigner, I felt honored to sit next to them.
I sat in my chalk block, next to the big brother of the family.
Cafeteria-like metal trays got passed out and then one by one, servers with large buckets of food came by to drop scoops into my tray. First rice, …some curry,… stew,… some salt and spices,… a pickle,… a sweet.
I glanced over to Elder Bhai (aka older brother) next to me with wide, questioning eyes. He looked at me and quietly raised his right hand and began mixing his food– stew and rice, curry with rice, adding bits of salt and chili paste. In the end, it looked like mush.
Then, with his hands, he scooped a tablespoon’s worth of food in the cup of his fingers. He bounced it lightly between his fingertips and the crease by his knuckles, collecting it in his grip. Then knocked it back, without the slightest flinch of an eye or twitch of his head.
Elder bhai (big brother) of the family in front of the food kitchen for temple goers
My mimic of him wasn’t smooth or suave.
I failed grace after my first, second,.. fifth tries.
Eating with my fingers felt like a westerner eating with chopsticks– tenuous, careful and clumsy.
For a westerner, you begin to see food in a strategic manner. For instance, although the stew mixed with yogurt was delicious, it made my rice watery, runny and difficult to grip.
Still, the experience excited me — I wished for the excuse to eat with my fingers again!
Eating with my fingers inside a Yoga Ashram.
A week later at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram (Read about the ashram experience), my wish was granted.
A dining hall with smooth, blue tiles and sitting mats replaced a straw-roofed hut and concrete floor, but the setup was similar. Nicely-spaced metal trays lined the mats and servers carrying metal buckets and large scoops passed by, offering ongoing food for fill.
Again, no utensils.
But this time, I wasn’t a complete newbie. I was prepared.
Me, still being a timid eater!
Dining ball at my yoga ashram.
The art of using only one hand when you eat.
The Indians have a technique of using only one hand to do all the work- mixing, tearing, eating.
Western travelers have difficulty with this aspect.
At the ashram, it was fun to see how western travelers approached this. Some let loose the inner child as if they were playing with mud. Others were reluctant to get their fingers dirty, picking food with their fingertips, treating it as if they were at English tea. Then, occasionally you cross a person, absolutely defiant and fearful of the neanderthal way; they secretly whip out a spoon they’ve hidden away.
Eating with your Hands 101: Tips for Eating Indian food in India.
1. Always use your ‘Right hand’.
Indians use their right hand to eat with. The left hand is known to be used for cleaning up after themselves at the bathroom. Basically, never EVER eat or pass food with your poo hand.
2. The hand is your all-in-one utensil.
Your right hand is your multi-purpose utensil. As your spoon, fork and knife– it’s used for mixing, tearing and shoveling food into your mouth.
3. Mix your food.
There’s usually two types of folk out there– “mixers” and “separatists” (I’m of the latter category). Mixers like to combine their foods, sampling the fusion of flavors and separatists like to taste and savor each portion of their meal individually. When it comes to culinary, India is primarily a mixer type of country.
South Indian thali meals are served on a banana leaf
For example, eating thali (pictured above)– you’re given rice and an occasional chapati (flat bread) as a staple, followed by a curry, dal stew and some veggies. A dash of salt, chili paste and a spicy pickle might accompany it. The different spices mixed together create an essential alchemy which give Indian food its flavor. If a dish is spicy, a watery yogurt may go with it to soften the spices.
Unfortunately, eating watery things with your fingers is obviously hard; the rice is what soaks up the juices and makes your grip easier.
4. Scoop your food into a bite-sized lump or ball
You may need to lightly bounce the food around a bit to get it onto a comfortable launching zone on your fingerpads (usually around 2/3rds from the tip of your fingers. You can use your thumb to keep it in place.
Do not attempt to grip your food hard or the rice will fall through your fingers. Indian people tend to use all of their fingers to grasp the food.
5. Eat with confidence.
Once you’ve got the food balanced on your fingers, it takes several attempts to negotiate the right speed and grip. I think it’s all a balanced measure between cock and confidence. You don’t want to pitch your food too far back to the point of choking (this isn’t baseball), but you want to toss it gently and quickly enough so that it doesn’t drip through your fingers or hit your chin.