Decoding science and stigma behind the art of eating with hands

More people are starting to eat with their hands now


The recent Rani Mukerji-starrer Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, based on a true story, stirred many conversations and debates. Among them, was the debate on how eating with hands has often been viewed as “uncivilised, uncultured” by the west. But, is it a practice prevalent only in third world countries? Of course not. The art of eating with hands is not simply about “polite” or “impolite” eating habits that grew out of cultural, climate and civilisational changes. And, as more people turn to it today citing scientific, practical and even sensual benefits, it is clear that it is here to stay.

Hot dal or sambhar poured over rice, mixed with a generous helping of vegetables, some pickle thrown in, papad crushed, an occasional helping of curd poured over. This amalgamation is then mixed with the finger tips, rolled into a bite-sized ball and pushed into the mouth. As the flavours release on the tongue, it satisfies the senses. Rice and curries in Kolkata, vada pav in Maharashtra, yakhni pulao in Kashmir, and khakras, bhakharis and handvos in Gujarat are all best enjoyed with bare hands. Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Pakistanis and Nepalis feast with hands. Further away, people in the Middle East, Africa and South America, too, eat with hands.

The experience

The art of eating with hands can be compared to the art of drinking wine, which, like food, is a sensual experience. Art historian, academic, author and museum curator Alka Pande believes that for Indians, it is about the flavour and taste. “Our body and our food are related,” she says. “We are a sensual lot―the touch, taste and smell of the food are related. We believe in pressure points in hands and the physicality of food is important for us. Flavour of rice or roti is enhanced when had with hands. Where is the flavour in having it with knife and fork?” She adds that cold materials of cutlery take away the warmth of food.

Pande, whose husband is in the services, recalls coming across a high-ranking officer eating a paratha with a knife and fork. “I was so ashamed back then that I could not eat my paratha with bare hands,” she says. “But, even today, I cannot have my paratha with a knife and fork. Indian food and street food like golgappas, puris and curries are such that you cannot pick up a knife and fork for it.”

Chef and restaurateur Kunal Kapur believes that food is the only art that requires all the senses. “From the sound of cooking to its aroma, touch and feel, visual appeal and taste, food requires all senses,” he says, adding that touch is important as it allows you to feel what you are about to put in your mouth. “That is why the Indian way of eating is through touch, wherein you break the bread, dip it in aachar, break a little papad, put in onion, dip it in curry and savour it,” he says.

The benefits

The science behind the art of eating with hands lies in traditional Indian scriptures and ayurvedic practices. According to ayurveda, the five fingers symbolise the five elements―the thumb represents fire, the index finger represents air, and the middle finger, ring finger and little finger represent sky/space, earth and water, respectively. Hence, eating with hands is known to stimulate the five senses and the nerve endings on the fingers stimulate digestion.

Experts also suggest that when eating with hands, one eats in controlled proportions and hence overeating can be avoided. Some even believe that with the tactile sense being put into use, the food's taste is enhanced. According to ayurvedic practitioners, the best way to eat is with hands, after washing them thoroughly, using only fingers (without soiling the palm), while sitting on the floor cross-legged to aid digestion. Kapur says the fingers must not enter the mouth while eating, but must push the food into the mouth. “It brings one close to the meal experience,” he says. “Indian food is about playing with the senses.” He adds that eating with hands with friends brings people closer.

According to Payal Kothari, gut health nutritionist and wellness coach, eating with hands is the perfect way to connect with one's culture and heritage and has several benefits. “It improves digestion as you are more likely to chew your food properly,” she says. “Hands and eyes can also detect the temperature and texture of the food, helping your body prepare for digestion.” Kothari also feels that eating with hands can help you eat more mindfully and be more present during meals. Additionally, it can be more hygienic than using cutlery, she says.

The stigma

In the western, ‘polite’ culture, eating with hands may often be taboo. This leads to instances of discrimination. Moreover, the way people eat with hands also differs from geography to geography. In northern India, for instance, licking fingers after the meal might not be a popular practice, but down south, it symbolises a sumptuous meal.

Within India, Covid-19 raised concerns about eating with hands in public spaces. But, academic, food critic and historian Pushpesh Pant says there is no guarantee that the cutlery is hygienic. “I have rarely seen even five-star hotels offering sealed packs of cutlery that has been cleaned,” he says. “We do not know if it has fallen on the floor or has been touched with dirty hands.” He argues that post Covid, there is no way to know if a person has washed his hands for 40 seconds before cooking or offering a meal.

While Pant does not believe that food can taste different when had with hands, he, too, says that from India to Nepal and Sri Lanka, the food is such that one cannot always use cutlery. “You cannot eat a motichoor laddoo or a papad with knife and fork,” he says.

On the other hand, the way one eats is influenced by the geographies, the climatic conditions, and the availability and type of food. For instance, in European countries and in the US, it becomes hard to eat a steak, a roast lamb, baked vegetables, soups, noodles or salads with hands. Additionally, in cooler climates, eating with hands also means washing hands more often in extremely cold water. Before water heaters were widely available, this was, at times, an impossible task.

However, despite such challenges, the knife-and-fork 'revolution' seems to have happened fairly recently in human history―after the 16th-17th centuries. The table knife is said to have been invented by French statesman and clergyman Cardinal Richelieu in 1637. While two-pronged forks had existed since the 8th-9th centuries, a proper fork was introduced in Europe in the 10th century by Emperor Otto’s wife Theophanu. It became popular in France only after Catherine de’ Medici’s marriage to King Henry II.

Before that the Italians and French ate with hands, according to food writer, television show host, restaurant consultant and author Karen Anand. “[It was] only after Catherine de’ Medici influenced the culinary cultures of Italy and France and introduced the fork that the French started to be considered the pinnacle of good taste and manners,” says Anand. “Before that, in medieval England, and all over Asia, people ate with hands and, in Europe, used knives to cut big pieces of meat.”