You still eat with your hands

Articles, Modern Mythmaking 17 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, August 05, 2012


“You STILL eat with your hands.” This is a comment (allegedly) made by Oprah Winfrey in her show on India, suggesting as if eating with hands is something primitive and undesirable. Such cultural insensitivity from a TV hostess renowned for her empathy! Why this disgust about eating with hands?

Tribes in Africa eat with their hands. Tribes in Australia eat with their hands. Tribes in America eat with their hands. Greeks did not use cutlery. Romans did not use the fork and knife. And Jesus certainly broke bread with his hands.

Long before cutlery became fashionable in Europe, chopsticks were used in China. The oldest ones, made of bronze, have been dated to 1000 BC. In the Orient, it is considered uncivilized to serve a guest food that has to be cut or torn with a knife or speared by a fork.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, food was eaten on hardened stale bread called trenchers. Knives were used not because they were necessary but because it was impressive. Men impressed ladies by cutting slices of meat, spearing it and offering it to them. In the 16th century Catherine de Medici took the first fork (or the two-pronged ‘split spoon’ as it was called) from Italy to France as part of her dowry. Everybody laughed but eventually everyone mimicked her, as eating with it became a sign of snobbery and aristocracy.

It is interesting that the rise of use of cutlery can be mapped to rise of European imperialism, American colonization and African slavery. Eating by hand came to be associated with natives, laborers and servants.

But think about it, at formal dinners the Indian Army and the Indian Government expects all its officers and diplomats to use cutlery. That is proper.  The option of eating with the hand does not exist. A colonial hangover? So why chastise Oprah?

One can understand that in cold countries the hands would be covered with gloves and so eating using an instrument would have made immense sense. This need led to the innovation of the fork in Europe and the chopstick in China. But in warm countries like South Asia and Middle East, eating by hand always made immense sense.

One can argue that hands are dirty and even unhygienic. But that argument does not hold if there is water and soap and towels available to wash and wipe hands. In many parts of North India, while roti is eaten by hand, people prefer using the spoon while eating rice. This must have something to with having grains sticking on the fingers, which is much more while eating rice and much less while eating bread.

In Vedic texts, food is a goddess and fingers are the midget sages known as Valakhilyas. The sages carry the goddess to our mouths so that we sustain ourselves. In Jyotisha, the five fingers are associated with the five elements: earth (little finger), water (ring finger), air (middle finger), ether (index finger) and fire (thumb). Thus when we eat by hand, the five elements get symbolically connected with the food. But such symbolism and speculations do not matter as one gets more modern and civilized, I guess.

  • Raghav Venkataraman

    I guess we should simply not react to neurotics :P

    At home we like sitting around my father who serves the food as rolled up balls to each person in rounds. And we are most happy whenever this happens. In general the people sitting around usually have a kid or working/ studying somewhere abroad and have come home for an occasion.

    We are at least not getting an appointment to see our parents.

    • jyothirmayi rallapalli

      Ah! That “ritual” is usually accompanied by interesting stories, especially when young children are involved, as far back as my memory goes. Thank you for making me nostalgic and a little teary eyed! :P

      • Raghav Venkataraman

        thanking for a teary eye :P

        • Jyoti Iyer

          Still happens at granny’s place. Plus when you’re full granny has a saying that roughly translates to ‘the one who eats the last morsel will be as strong as an elephant’ I always used to say I’d look funny

  • Kalpesh

    How can one eat burger with cutlery?

    In the end, its all about tools that work best for the situation. One can’t eat a dosa with a spoon/fork.

    On a similar note, I think the reason for blazer/tie/socks must have been to cover the people from snow/cold. The necktie (especially) worn on top of the shirt closes the neck (by having a knot) and covers the shirt from letting air pass into the shirt. This is what I could assume to be the reason.

    Why do we take it as default? I think, it is because we consider ourselves lesser compared to west.
    Imaging someone wearing blazer/tie in Indian summer!!

    • Raghav Venkataraman

      Well I am ready to go covered in un-stitched clothes with no chapels office. I will actually be happy to. esp. in Chennai. :D

      “consider ourselves lesser compared to west ” – Just imagine, India is a superpower and the COLD countries stand and wait for its outsourced work. The only norm India lays will be a dress code of UNSTITCHED clothes without chapels – however cold the country is. ;)

    • Raghav Venkataraman

      Well I am ready to go covered in un-stitched clothes with no footwear to work. I will actually be happy to. esp. in Chennai. :D”consider ourselves lesser compared to west ” – Just imagine, India is a superpower and the COLD countries stand and wait for its outsourced work. The only norm from India will be a dress code of UNSTITCHED clothes without footwear – however cold the country is. ;)

  • chirag garg

    i think its evolution, which is a natural process and it happens only when you observe and practice. As to decorate a house we use things / artefacts from different parts of the country / world, likewise we adopt culture as we evolve with time. moreover, it can also be attributed to convenience, hygeine, etc

  • Its wonderful how you explain the context of fingers. In Gyan Vigyan Yoga of Bhagwath Gita… The God talks about these five elements of and three more which is part of Nature created by him. They are Mann (Mind), Buddhi (Intelligence) and Ahankar (Ego). It is important how they play a role in the way we prepare our food using the other five – Bhumi (Earth), Aap (Water), Anal (Fire), Vaayu (Air) and Kham (Ether). But what is most “Param” (Supreme) of these all eight is the Energy in Life Form which sustains all that is within human and nature. It is important to keep having that source of Energy (ATP) in order to sustain — how you get it is not very relevant!!!

  • Raghav Putti

    Few thoughts:
    My chinese colleague confessed that Indian food tasted better when eaten with hand than with the metal / plastic. He noted that the contact with the hand had more personal touch to the food and the contact of the steel with the teeth killed the taste of the food. Singapore (where I currently reside) where traditional culture of eating with chop sticks / hand still exists, would now be “primititve” to the standards of Oprah….
    Oprah, known for her sentimental touch and sensitiveness in her shows, displayed the shallowness of her understanding of International culture, specially asian, where traditional culture still guides and governs the lifestyle of the Asians. With such deep roots in their own culture, it is no wonder that the generations of civilisations have showed supreme stability in their existence relative to civilisation that is running has headless chickens with no base to seek support of, under the pretext of “modern / civilized” outlook.
    Such be the distincition of seemingly civilized and the truly civilised society….

  • Vivek

    when asked why Indians eat using hand , Pandit Nehru famously replied ,” We don’t make love through interpreters “.

  • Are we not over reacting? I feel it was an innocent question. I personally feel being touchy is a strong trait of a complex personality. there are more things we need to fix before we feel ashamed of. Like (pardon this) Defecating in public just happens to be one of them. I am surprised we don’t seem to be uncomfortable about this practice. May be Oprah needs to probe this one now…

  • N.

    WOW!!. Simply brilliant. Taking the liberty of sharing this page.. Looking forward to more of such food related articles!

  • uppili c

    I prefer hand because it is exclusively mine!!!

  • Doesnt make a difference what Oprah or anyone else thinks. Our traditions are quiet deep rooted. In our family, we still eat sitting together on the floor,with hands. we havent even taken cognisance of such remarks by outsiders

  • pankaj

    you still use tissue…………lols…………….

  • Let them evolve. They don’t have more than 4000 years of history behind them….!!