Where your hand is the spoon

Imagine sitting on the floor around a circular table with bowls of soups, vegetables and rice dishes steaming. Eager arms overlap with only one thing in mind — their stomachs.

Or eating a wholesome thali meal from a single huge plate that has several stews and vegetables served in small bowls, crisp flatbread and a mound of rice. 

And there is no silverware. In fact, the hand, specifically the fingers, is the only utensil used for eating.

Eating with the hand is a common practice in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. It evokes a sensuous, intimate and tactile connection with the food on your plate. But there is a technique to it. 

When people use their fingers to eat a thali meal in the southern part of India, for instance, they pour the thick lentil stew, perfumed with curry leaves called sambhar, from one of the bowls over the rice and combine them together with their finger tips.

Never mixing the toppings to preserve each individual dish’s flavor, they scoop up the vegetable such as potato or cabbage poriyal along with a bite-size ball of rice by using their index, middle and ring fingers and thumb to hold the rice and vegetable like a shovel, then raising their hand and slowly pushing the ball of food into the mouth. While doing this, the person makes sure to keep his or her head over the plate in case the food falls out of the fingers. It’s as simple as that. 

Breads are also common in the cultures that embrace hand-eating and are a lot easier than rice for a novice to handle. The Burmese tend to either dip bread in curries to soak up sauces or pick up food with it just like the Ethiopians do with the injera — a flat and spongy bread — from a communal platter. Made with the grain teff, injera doubles as a plate and scooping mechanism, and is topped with meat and legume stews, salad, raw minced beef and greens. So first you tear a piece of the injera, scoop your choice of food item from the platter in a bite-size ball and place it in your mouth.

Eating with hands might seem like a slow process at first, but the more you do it, the faster it becomes and the more natural it feels. It also might be messy but you get to fully touch and taste the food. “Eating food with your hands feeds not only the body but also the mind and the spirit,” according to an old Indian saying.

Ganesh Viswanathan, a group manager at Oracle Corp. who was raised in New Delhi and lives in Upper St. Clair, says he prefers using his fingers over a fork or spoon because the meal always taste better and the smell of the meal lingers. 

It is a sentiment shared by the Burmese, Butanese and Ethiopians, who also use their hands to eat. Although the very foods they consume are different and eating practices vary from sharing a plate to having individual ones or sitting on the floor or by a table, when it comes hand-eating, they all follow some basic rules. 

Hands are always washed before sitting down for the meal, and it is done with water and not by using a hand sanitizer. Eating with the hand doesn’t mean sticking all five fingers or an entire fist into your mouth. Ideally, only the first two joints of the fingers should touch the food and the palm should be clean. 

Also, it’s proper to use only the right hand. Ron Lee, owner of Spice Island Tea House in Oakland, says using your left hand to eat is “unclean.” He learned the proper way to scoop the rice into a ball and gently guide into his mouth with his fingers during his time in Myanmar. He also learned not to lick his fingers until he finished the meal. On the other hand, Mr. Viswanathan says that Indians lick their fingers and hands to signify a tasty meal.

The Bhutanese believe the hands are a gift from God and therefore meals are more satisfying when eaten by hand since it engages the person with a higher power.  

“Why use a spoon when you have a gift of God with you,” asks Upendra Dahal, program director at the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh in Brentwood.

Moreover in Bhutan, facilities to wash utensils are sparse, he says, and so it only makes sense to use your hands for eating.

Chintan Bhomia, a 25-year-old graduate student studying chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says he is accustomed to eating and breaking food with his hands as it’s part of his Indian tradition. “At home, I always use my hands no matter what I’m eating,” he says. 

But other than burgers, pizzas and wings and some bar finger foods, hand-eating is not a common practice when dining out at restaurants here. 

“I find that even though there are a lot of Indian restaurants [in Pittsburgh], I seldom see people eating with hands,” Mr. Bhomia says.

Similarly, Mr. Lee has never seen people eat without utensils in his restaurant. 

Those like Rehan Khan, a construction management graduate student at CMU, doesn’t use his hand to eat when dining out because he says he wants to blend in and follow Western etiquette.

“We have almost forgotten our culture of eating with hands,” Mr. Khan says, adding that sometimes he and his friends will eat in the traditional style to remind them what it’s like.

However, at Udipi Cafe in Monroeville, it is common to see diners use their hands to tear breads such as dosai, paratha, uthappam and poori. One of the most satisfying things is that there is an intimate flavor in each bite.

Just as it is important to wash your hands at the beginning, it’s equally important to wash them after a meal. Sometimes, wedges of limes or lemons are used to rid fingers of the smell of food.

Eating with hands allows people to embrace a culture that is hundreds and thousands of miles away.

Now imagine an Ethiopian family, a father and his 5-year-old daughter, sitting around a table sharing a communal plate where they eat from their designated section.

The little girl scoops shiro wot, a ground lentil and chickpea stew, using the injera and flawlessly pushes it into her mouth without dropping any part of it. 

It’s the only way she knows.

Fitale Wari was an intern in the features department this summer at the Post-Gazette.


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