How many times have your parents told you not to touch food with your hands but to always use a fork and knife? After 29 years of integrating into this social standard, the reversed psychology of learning to eat food using my hands was challenging, to say the least, but once I familiarised myself with the concept, it gave me a whole new perspective on what eating is all about.
In today’s Western society, eating food with your hands can sometimes be perceived as being unhygienic or bad mannered. However, within Indian culture there is an old saying that “Eating food with your hands not only feeds the body, but also the mind and the spirit.”
Having direct contact between our hands and what we are putting into our body is an intimate experience, making us more mindful of what we are eating, and is more of a ‘ritual’ than just filling the belly. We naturally pick up smaller food portions, as opposed to using a spoon or fork which can pick up thrice the amount in one bite-full, this results in eating at a slower pace, calming the mind and having a better digestive process throughout the body.
The practice of eating with one’s hands originated within Ayurvedic teachings, thousands of years ago. The Vedic people knew the power held in the hand, the act of eating derived from a practice of one of the many hand mudras (a symbolic or ritualistic gesture in Hinduism and Buddhism that stimulates the flow of prana, or life force, in the body). If you’re not familiar with mudras, a commonly practised one is used during meditation where the index finger touches the thumb, with the palms facing upwards, circulating the energy flow through our fingertips.
Our hands and feet are said to be the channel of the five elements. The Ayurvedic texts teach us that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements. Through the thumb comes space, through the index finger, air, through the mid-finger, fire, through the ring finger, water and through the little finger comes earth.
When eating with our hands, we place our thumb against the index finger, creating a mudra as we spoon each ball of food from our fingers to our mouths. Just like in Chinese culture, where it is believed that using chopsticks is good training for the mind, likewise, eating with your hands in India not only creates a connection with the food one is ingesting but is also a yoga for the mind.
There is no way around it. Indian food tastes best when eaten with your fingers and certainly brings about a far greater experience and sense of well-being throughout and after the meal.
Roll your sleeves up, wash your hands and dig in there!! :)
For those wishing to try it, here are some guidelines when it comes to eating Indian food:
It is customary to eat only with your right hand, and use the left to move food onto one’s plate from a serving dish. In other words, your left hand is to stay clean throughout the meal.
Only your fingers should be used, the palm should be untouched and clean throughout the meal.
The thumb of the hand is used to catapult the small ball of food into your mouth.
After tearing the rice-based items and bread with one hand only, use your thumb and fingers to tear a small piece of the bread off, scoop the curry or the vegetables with the bread and eat. For the rice, you can use your fingers and thumb to similarly move the food into your mouth. Mix a bit of curry and rice together on the plate to make a little ball, then bring it up to your mouth.