My French cousin has adapted well to various Indian cultural things, except that she doesn’t eat with her fingers. Since she was little she has been scolded when she touches food with her fingers as it is considered barbaric and rude. It has been drilled into her all her life that proper children eat with utensils like forks and knives. Naughty children use their fingers. I am totally not offended by this and completely understand. It’s just the different manners that we have been brought up with and the different hygiene norms we are used to.
Throughout my toddlerhood I have been fed by hand most of the time and in Indian culture, it’s considered the most loving way to feed a child. Even the blue God child Krishna eats butter with his fingers from a jar. So it’s imbibed in our culture as a loving thing. As a kid, I used my own fingers when eating Indian food off a banana leaf or at Indian restaurants. It’s the traditional way and it makes the food taste even yummier, without the metallic taste of utensils in my mouth.
My next favourite way of eating is using chopsticks which I was forced to teach myself when I went to primary school at age 6 and ordered mee soup with yellow noodles. It didn’t feel forced though, because it was just a natural thing. At first I struggled as I had a hard time getting a grip on the noodles, but after a couple of weeks I caught on. I think it’s easier for children to learn things. I must admit I cross my chopsticks, which is a no-no in Chinese culture, but at least I can pick up stuff and it’s the only way I am able to. I have tried the proper way and failed.
I didn’t use the fork, spoon and knife in the proper manner, following all rules of western etiquette till much later. It is quite embarrassing to me, but that’s the truth. I was the one who when attempting to cut a piece of slippery meat, could send a piece flying off my plate. Thank goodness I have learnt since then. My colleague and friend S actually taught me how to eat pasta as she used to twirl her instant noodles around her fork against her spoon in a very nifty manner and I soon picked that up. Now that’s my favourite thing to do – twirling.
I hardly eat with my hands these days because of the shame of bad hygiene associated with it. These days when you’re out at a restaurant hardly anyone eats with their hands. I think that’s just plain wrong for me not to do something because of shame, but sometimes I can’t help it when I feel judging eyes upon me. When I’m with my mum I always revert to my natural way of eating especially when she cooks my favorite vegetarian dhal curry called sambar and serves it on a banana leaf.
The practical reasons for not eating with my hands are that the food stains your hands (especially with the use of yellow food colouring in restaurant food) and it’s hard to get the strong smell of spices off. I even used liquid detergent that’s used to wash dishes, once. The scent of the spices can be that strong.
At least once a year I still eat with my fingers and have not lost the technique. And believe me it’s a technique. You’re not supposed to get your palms marked with rice, and basically you’re supposed to use more of the pads of your fingers. I find it funny when I see people not used to it, attempting to scoop the food with their fingers into their mouths, but at the same time I feel an affection towards them for making the attempt. When Anthony Bourdain ate with his fingers on banana leaf, it made me adore him even more. When people eat with their fingers for the first time, they tend to put their fingers into their mouths, but actually what we do is push the food with the thumb into the mouth with the fingers just grazing the lips. Washing your hands thoroughly before and after the meal is also part of the ritual. It never dawned on me that eating with fingers was something that was learnt, just like eating with other utensils. And that was a cultural surprise to me.