The Rules For Eating With Your Hands In India, Africa And The Middle East

Nov 19, 2012 2:01 pm

There's an art to hand-to-mouth dining

how to eat with your hands
Photo: jetalone on Flickr
Sorry lefties, eating with your hands demands a strong right hand.
 

We often hear questions like: what did we ever do before the iPhone. It's a fair question for sure. But, what did we ever do before cutlery?

This summer, Oprah Winfrey took a trip to India, where she visited an Indian family for a traditional dinner. Sitting down to eat, the queen of daytime said, “I heard some Indian people still eat with their hands.” This, of course, led to some harsh criticism from Indian communities. Hand-to-mouth eating (and, we’re not talking Shake Shack hand-to-mouth eating) is still a very real custom in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Though many view this custom as uncivilized — barbaric even — the practice (read: art) of eating with one’s hands is not as easy as it looks. There are rules to follow and manners to mind. Here, a rundown of tips for three cultures that practice the custom. 

India
First, always remember to wash your hands thoroughly. This is obvious, but crucial. Using your right hand (don’t try touching the plate with your left hand — sorry, lefties), scoop the food (usually, curry, veggies or meat) onto flatbread (naan, roti or chapati) with a twist of your wrist. Using your fingertips, bring the food to your mouth. Things to remember: don’t bring the plate to your mouth — lower your head instead — take small amounts of food each time, make sure the food does not touch your palms and don’t put your fingers into your mouth. The secret? Use your thumbs to push the food inside. While some think eating with your hands makes the food taste better (you’re able to mix the food to a consistency you like), others believe it feeds your mind, not just your stomach, by offering a personal connection with your food.

Africa
Fufu, a root-based plant boiled in water, mashed, shaped into smaller balls and served with soup and meat, is a popular dish in parts of Central and Southern Africa. Once ready to eat the fufu, pull off a small piece, make a dent in it and use it to scoop up the soup. Much like in India, eating with the left-hand is considered disrespectful, and one should use their thumb and first two fingers to pick up and push food into your mouth. Before sitting down to eat, two water bowls will be placed in front of you for washing your hands before and after the meal. Oh, and don’t lick your fingers — that’s saved for after the meal when everyone is finished!

The Middle East 
Hand-to-mouth eating etiquette doesn’t differ much from Africa and India in the Middle East. It’s all the usual to-dos (use your right hand only, scoop food with your fingers and wash your hands thoroughly before and after your meal). It is common, however, to take food from a communal plate that sits in the center of the table, scooping the food with pita bread.

And brace yourselves, New York
More and more, people in the U.S. are embracing hand-to-mouth eating. Spots like Zak Pelaccio’s Malaysian-inspired Fatty Crab are one of the many that are encouraging eating with hands. So the next time someone says, “don’t eat with your hands!” you can enlighten them otherwise.

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