It’s strange the first time you do it. It goes against pretty much everything we’ve been taught. Eating with your hands is by definition playing with your food and some part of you expects the scolding eyes of a parent to set upon you at any time but they never come.
There’s a special category of foods, for which this practice is reserved on our side of the Atlantic. Finger foods of course – various h’ors douevres, tacos, rotis (unless you buy them from Chefette, in which case it doesn’t really count) and the like. Other than that we are taught to eat with a variety of appropriate cutlery. At a fancy dinner, the sheer number of different forks can be overwhelming - one for each course eat from the outside in, don’t slurp the soup and tuck in your elbows in. It seems more like an exercise in mental acuity than the meeting of a biological imperative.
Here however, there’s a simple beauty in the tactile experience that is eating with your hands. Sure, if the food’s hot it can be a nuisance on your fingers, not to mention having rice under your nails and the fact that curry can and will stain anything (Tip of the day: a little toothpaste on your fingers after a curry meal will clean it right up).
But when you eat with your hands you experience food in a whole new way. You get to explore the textures and experiment with mixing them even before you begin to actually eat. And once you do begin to eat there’s something organic about the whole process. Something that part of your western upbringing tells you is wrong but which nevertheless feels terribly natural.
And besides experiencing food in a new way, we all know that when you wash dishes after any meal the worst part is having to wash the cutlery…so why not take them out of the equation all together…but that’s just an added bonus.
When first I arrived, I was always happy to be served with cutlery (which means a spoon and a fork, no knife) but this week as I had lunch with my co workers, I was a) the only person served with cutlery but I more importantly had no inclination to use it.
I think Sri Lanka got it right on this one, there’s just something about eating with your hands and the way in which it changes the way in which we share and experience food. Getting seconds is always tricky cause your right hand is dirty and if you’re like me your left serves more an aesthetic purpose and keeps you balanced than actual function but everyone is serving everyone and helping each other out. And if you’re particularly close eating off each other’s plates which looks completely different when you are actually reaching your hand into someone’s plate rather than just stealing their potatoes with your fork.
There’s just something homey about eating with your hands even if you’re thousands of miles away from home.