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In Focus

I feel it in my fingers: Why more of us should start eating with our hands

Most of us in the West eat things like burgers or pastries with our hands, but around the world it’s far more common to eat ‘messy’ or ‘sticky’ items without a knife and fork, too. It could transform the way we enjoy food, writes Kate Ng

Saturday 26 August 2023 11:12 BST
‘I’ve come to realise that eating with our hands is a much more universal act than I thought’
‘I’ve come to realise that eating with our hands is a much more universal act than I thought’ (iStock)

The next time you eat something with your hands, take a moment to notice how it feels on your fingertips before taking a bite. If it’s a burger, are the buns smooth or covered in a smattering of sesame seeds? When you put pressure on them with your fingers, does the bread squish down or is it more of a crumby affair? Then, when you finally take a bite, notice how satisfying it is to sink your teeth through its layers; soft bun giving way to crunchy lettuce or onion, to oozy cheese to, finally, juicy patty. Now think about how different it would be if you had used a knife and fork.

Eating with one’s hands is an immensely pleasurable experience. While in the West, the act is usually confined to foods encased in bread or pastry, Indian, African and some other Asian cultures are more adept at using their fingers for dishes that might seem too “messy” or “sticky” on this side of the world. One of my favourite dishes is banana leaf rice, which at its core comprises of rice, vegetables and curry. I mix each element of the dish and use a pinching motion with all five fingers to construct the perfect bite, before sweeping it up in a quick motion and delivering the food to my mouth. I find that it forces me to really consider each bite, from what flavours and textures I want it to contain, to how large a portion I can manage.

Up until a few months ago, I never really thought about how often I eat with my hands. Like many people, I associated it closely with Indian meals and always thought that Western culture was too obsessed with polite society to really dig their fingers in. This is still true, to an extent – many South Asians who grew up eating with their hands report being looked at with horror when they attempted to do the same in public here. But, after witnessing my very white British husband happily dig into banana leaf rice when we began dating, and having conversations with friends about the topic, I’ve come to realise that eating with our hands is a much more universal act than I thought.

For example, burgers, pizzas, hot dogs and chips are all eaten by hand – unless you’re eating one of those beastly burgers that tower too high and need to be deconstructed. Then there’s things like fried chicken or shellfish, which are simply easier to pick up, pull apart and pry open using your fingers. Foods like Mexican burritos and tacos or Japanese sushi are commonly picked up by hand and devoured. Some people enjoy eating salads by hand, finding it easier to use pieces of lettuce filled with dressing and other ingredients like edible spoons. A surprising proponent of this was Sylvia Plath, who wrote in the third chapter of her 1963 novel The Bell Jar that she observed a poet eating a salad “with his fingers, leaf by leaf”, making it “seem to be the only natural and sensible thing to do”.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that my hands are my favourite utensil. No one is delicately picking up crisps with chopsticks or forking a French fry. All manner of flat breads – from parathas and naans to injeras – beg to be torn apart by hands and used to mop up dhal and curry. I would never think of eating a sandwich with a fork and knife, any more than I would for a Taiwanese bao. It just seems wrong.

On this side of the world, cutlery has reigned supreme until very recently. Primitive humans have been carving knife and spoon-like implements for centuries, while the fork is a surprisingly modern invention. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, a Byzantine princess debuted a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice 1006, which disgusted locals who ate using their fingers and knives. One Venetian apparently condemned such a tool and said: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

There’s perhaps also an aspect of self-consciousness being thrown out the window when we eat with our hands. It banishes the concept of formality and Anglocentric ‘table manners’

Surekha Ragavan

Despite the initial rejection, forks became a mainstay across Europe after 1533 when Catherine De Medici, wife of Henry II, hauled a collection of silver forks from Italy to France in 1533. Three hundred years later, the full set of silverware as we know it had integrated itself into everyday life in Europe. Manners-obsessed Victorians then made up all sorts of etiquette rules, from how to hold a fork, to the myriad of different-sized cutleries with very specific purposes – like fish knives and dessert spoons. These became class markers, separating the upper echelons of society with their dinky utensils from the lower classes, who worked too much to care about which spoon went where.

But one thing could be agreed upon – eating with one’s hands was considered impolite and vulgar in almost all culinary situations. That is, until about a decade ago when DeBrett’s, the British authority on etiquette and behaviour, declared in their 2012 guide that “table manners are no longer about adhering to a rigid, and outdated, code of conduct”. The experts named foods like pizza and calzone as “acceptable” foods to be eaten using your hands. It also advised such adventurous eaters to create “as little mess as possible”, sit up straight and ensure you “never put your elbows on the table”, proving that some old habits die hard.

Bristol-based restaurateur Rashintha Rodrigo, one of the five founders of Sri Lankan restaurant group The Coconut Tree, says he eats almost anything with his hands – even a roast dinner. “I start with a fork and knife but always find myself picking pieces of chicken or potato off my plate with my fingers towards the end of the meal,” he laughs. He also grew up eating rice and curry with his hands in Sri Lanka, and felt self-conscious about doing the same when he moved to Britain. But these days, he finds it liberating. “It’s become more accepted in the past five or six years and more people are curious about it,” Rodrigo says.

Surekha Ragavan, founder of Periuk, a digital archive of heritage Malaysian recipes, also finds freedom in the act. “There’s perhaps also an aspect of self-consciousness being thrown out the window when we eat with our hands. It banishes the concept of formality and Anglocentric ‘table manners’,” she says, reminding me of another observation by Plath in The Bell Jar. The author’s liberation is slightly different, though, as she wrote: “I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at a table with a certain arrogance… nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.”

A person eats with their hands in India (iStock)

Those who advocate eating with hands often also say it makes the food taste better, but no one seems to be able to pinpoint why. José Pizzaro, the acclaimed Spanish owner and founder of the Pizarro group of restaurants, describes it as “the best way to eat”. “It’s a visceral pleasure that’s really hard to beat,” he says. “It creates a sort of magical connection between you and the food. If you’ve never eaten a big, fat, juicy prawn covered with garlic and lemon with your hands, and then go through the ritual of pulling off the legs and the shell and then sucking the brains out – you haven’t lived!”

But why is the tactile sensation of touching food so delightful? Some opine that touching your food is beneficial because you can gauge food temperature better with your fingers, and so run a lower risk of burning your tongue. Others claim that your fingers have “healthy bacteria” on them that get transferred into your digestive system when you eat with your hands, but these are difficult to quantify. However, Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, believes the pleasure lies in our perception of food, as opposed to any other physical benefits.

In his review of how the experience of eating changes when people eat with their hands instead of cutlery, Spence found that having more direct, tactile contact with food appears to “enhance the experience” of eating and drinking. “There’s a lot of sensory input that happens even before we put the food in our mouth,” he says. “Just by using our sensitive finger pads, we almost anticipate how tasty something is going to be before it reaches our tongue.” There’s practicality in using our hands to eat, too. We can determine how ripe a fruit is by squeezing it gently, or figure out if something is going to be soft or crunchy before biting into it.

Of course, there are some dishes that are simply not hand-friendly. Noodles, pasta and soups obviously require cutlery to eat, but there’s nothing to stop us from taking more joy in the foods we can eat with our hands. If you’ve never tried handling anything beyond a sandwich or a pasty, I fully encourage you to try something new. Take a leaf out of Plath’s book with your next salad, perhaps, or take the plunge into some rice and curry. It will require practice to develop the skill of eating without dropping rice absolutely everywhere, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

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