Eating With Hands: The Cultural Backstory To India’s Etiquette

Hands are utensils, too.

A spoon, fork, and knife. The holy trinity of utensils. False. This cutlery is only perceived as “common” because of a westernized narrative that emphasizes its use. Every culture and country has specific eating rules and habits. In America, hamburgers are handheld meals, while the British use a knife and fork just across the pond.

In India, however, there’s no need for prolonged tools to get food from one’s plate to the mouth. Indians prefer using their hands. It’s ingrained into their culture like chopsticks are in Asian countries. Usually, ceremonial events such as: weddings (or bhoj,) cremations require guests to eat with their hands, and it’s seen as disrespectful not to oblige.

Susan Wadley, anthropologist and professor of South Asian Studies at Syracuse University, lived in a small Indian village for two years in 1967 and always ate with her hands.

“ Kind of hard to wrap a chapati (roti) around the food with a fork! Or if rice, you quickly learn to get a ball of food on the tips of your fingers and flick it off into your mouth.”

eating with hands
Photo from Unsplash by Lai YuChing

Traced back to Ayurveda – a traditional Hindi system of medicine dedicated to maintaining a balance between the body, mind, and environment – the Vedic people believed the hands held a certain power. The fingers are considered as an extension of the five elements: air, fire, earth, water, and space. Picking up the food with one’s fingers strengthens the body and the soul connection, tethering oneself to his or her surrounding environment.

Retrospectively, using hands to eat taps into a person’s consciousness. Awareness comes when food is no longer separated from the skin by utensils, like an uplifting veil. Physically touching food produces a recognition for consumption and temperature. People are more aware of their eating pace and heat levels, leading to better disgust and overall health benefits.

If anyone is considering trying this method or finds themself in a situation where it is customary, proper etiquette should be followed. Before food consumption begins, one must wash the hands. Regardless of utensils or fingers, it is a sanitary practice not to be ignored.

Use only the right hand. The left hand is associated with cleaning oneself and is seen as unsanitary or disrespectful to use during a meal. The fingertips will do most of the work when eating or stirring basmati rice into curries, like paneer tikka or kala chana (black chickpea.)

The rice and curry get cautiously cradled in the fingertips and pushed into the mouth by the thumb. Try to avoid staining the palm or outside of the hand. Banana leaves or flatbread, such as naan and roti, can be used like spoons for wetter meals.

Geographical location also influences eating habits. “In north India, I was told many times, the food should only go up to your second bend in your finger while in the south of India, it can be almost the whole palm,” says Professor Wadley.

eating with hands
Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

Like a child learning to use a fork and knife, this method takes practice, but it’s easily attainable with effort. Every culture has its specialty, and this is India’s.

Professor Wadley says, “I would never eat with my fingers in Japan! not the right culture and right rules. My Japanese roommate wouldn’t even pick up food for a pot with her fingers, always using chopsticks.” Wherever one travels, being mindful and embracing their lifestyles and norms is essential. The result will be more meaningful and memorable experiences.

George Hashemi

Content Editor Associate

George admires the power of the written word and its ability to communicate different cultures and destinations to others. He is an avid reader, foodie and voyager. You will probably find him on a food-tour in Madrid, or curled up with a book in the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen, Morocco.

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