When I tell people, that I live in India, there are usually two topics that “Westerners” want to talk to me about.
The first question, which always come up, is the bathroom issue and the procedure at toilet specifically.
But today I am writing about the second topic: Eating with hands.
When we hear that Indians are eating with their bare hands, thoughts like “Uncivilized” can come up. For us, who have been taught from an early age to eat sensibly with a knife and fork at the table, eating with the hands and sitting on the floor, seems to be a habit from the Stone Age. Oh, every wessternized child would love to be allowed to eat like that!
But eating with the hands is not barbarian at all. In fact, eating with your hands isn’t that easy, and there are many rules that need to be followed to avoid a faux pax while eating in an Indian family. On the one hand, there is no self-service, one person, usually the cook or one of the women, serves the food. One sits cross-legged on the floor with upright spine and uses only the right hand to eat, the left hand is spared out.
You take the rice in your fingers and then push the food into your hand with your thumb only. When you eat chapathi (Indian flatbread), then you tear off a little piece, fold it and use the bread like a small edible spoon, grabbing the vegetables with it to eat everything together.
While you’re eating, you should not touch anything with your right hand- and for sure not with your feet! After the meal, (wait till everyone is done eating), you take the water from your drinking class to clean your hand over your plate. In restaurants, a small bowl of hot water and lemon is served, in which you wash your hands.
Eating with your hands makes scientific sense! It is proofed, that we have nerves in our fingers, that make the meal more palatable. In fact, Indian food tastes much better, taken in through warm fingers, than through a cold, metal spoon.
However, this eating style does not apply for non Indian food. Even an Indian wouldn’t eat a schnitzel, potatoes or spaghetti with his hands!
As different as the individual Indian states are, so tdifferent is the way of eating.
In the cities, in the higher middle class families, you sometimes eat with a knife and fork, but always with a spoon. When invited, don’t eat the rice with your hands please.
In southern India, you use the whole hand instead of the fingertips and shovel the rice into your mouth. When the Indians from the north look at a Southern Indian while eating, even they have to smile!
In Rajasthan, among good friends or in families, people even eat together from one big plate that is placed on a small, low table! There is hardly any rice eaten here, but a hard millet breas, which is crumbled with ghee and sugar and then mixed with the vegetable and lentil dishes to a uniform porridge by hand. Very, very tasty!
You see, you can’t generalize! But the fact is, the Indian food is tasty, healthy and varied!
As a foreigner, by the way, you don’t have to worry, the Indians already know that we find it difficult to eat by hand and you mostly get a spoon. However, you should try the hand-eating at least once, not least to realize that it takes a bit of practice to be able to eat civilized by hand!