This may sound familiar to some of you. Remember when your mother or father would tell you to stop playing with your food and use a fork and knife? Well, perhaps you still shouldn’t play with your food, but in India you should definitely set aside that cutlery and use your hands when eating a delicious Indian meal.
In India, as well as other parts of the world, eating with your hands is part of the culture. After all, what could be more natural, more primal? Though many may view this custom as uncivilized, the practice is not as easy as it may look. There is in fact a skill to it and manners to follow. There are also several health benefits from eating with your hands such as improves digestion and prevention of diabetes. There’s also an even deep significance as to why eating with your hands is so important according to Indian culture.
When did eating with yours hands become a thing in India?
The practice of eating with the hands originated within Ayurvedic teachings. The Vedic people believed that our bodies are in sync with the elements of nature and our hands hold a certain power. Ayurvedic texts teach that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements:
- Through the thumb comes space
- Through the forefinger comes air
- Through the mid-finger comes fire
- Through the ring finger comes water
- Through the pinky finger comes earth
When you eat with your hands, you are supposed to do so by joining all fingers together. This is believed to improve our consciousness of the taste of the food we eat. Not only are you feeding your body but also your mind and spirit. When you touch your food with your hands, you’re creating a physical and spiritual connection with it. You’re also much more present in the moment. When food is touched with the hands, there’s automatically more careful attention placed on it – what the temperature is, how much you can carry, how the hand must be held in order to keep the food in it.
Eating with your hands is respectful!
When you are invited into the home of an Indian family for a meal, it’s a mark of respect towards the host and god to physically touch your food when eating. However, there is a technique to eating this way. In the south of India, it’s considered ill-mannered to let the palm of your hands or outside of your fingers get stained. Proper etiquette is to only use the tips of your fingers to pick up the food. This goes back to our fingertips holding certain energies.
What about soupy food? Do I use my hands for these types of dishes?
In general, silverware is used only in the kitchen for preparing and for serving the food. However, for more liquidly foods such as some dal dishes, a spoon can be used. In the North of India, rice can also be eaten with a spoon but in the South, the practice of eating food (including rice) from a banana leaf is practised.
What about the whole saying “you don’t know where your hands have been?”
Well, I sure hope you do. After all, they are your hands!
You will find that in every Indian restaurant there’s a hand washing station. This is so you can clean your hands before enjoying your meal. As for the skeptics who still believe there’s bacteria on your hands that shouldn’t be consumed….
Our body has a certain kind of bacteria that protects us from other harmful bacteria in the environment. This good bacteria resides in places like our hands, mouth, throat, intestine, gut and the rest of our digestive system. When you eat with your hands, this good bacteria enters your system and protects you against harmful bacteria. So, as long as you wash the bad bacteria you’ve collected from your day off your hands, you’ll be giving your body a dose of good bacteria that it needs to stay healthy.
Along with the ingesting good bacteria, there are other health benefits to reap from eating with your hands:
When you use your fingers to pick up food, millions of nerve endings in your fingers relay the message that you’r about to eat. This preps the stomach for digestion by releasing digestive juices and enzymes.
Promotes Mindful Eating
I’ve read several articles sharing the same message of the importance of eating slow and only when relaxed. Eating when your stressed or too fast can lead to some pretty ugly indigestion problems you don’t want to deal with. A calm, aware state allows optimum digestion. Not only that, but it also prevents you from overeating.
Whether you’re a 5-year old child or a 50-year old business man, there’s no fighting the fact that eating with your hands is fun. Admit it!
For India, as well as other countries that eat with their hands, it’s almost without exception that the right hand only is used. Why? The left hand is generally considered too unclean to actually eat with since it’s said to be the one used to wipe up in the washroom.