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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Wisdom behind eating with your hands…

Nowadays, in many Indian households the practice of eating food with the hands has been replaced with the use of cutlery ,either spoons or knives and forks, depending on the dish. It is thought to be more modern, hygienic and convenient; however most people don't realize that there is a rationale behind eating food with your hands. Many westerners find eating with hands unhygienic, primitive and disgusting but the connection of eating food with hands is not only with the body but also with the mind and soul.

There Is a Philosophy Behind This Indian Practice of Eating With the Fingers. In India, Eating is perceived as being a Sensual Activity. The Idea Is That One Should Be Able to Enjoy The Process of Eating With as Many of the Senses as Possible - Taste, Smell, Sight, and Touch.

This is a prime example of how many things within Indian culture may seem weird and unusual at first glance, but once a closer look is taken it is surprising, but a vast amount of knowledge is revealed. Some call it ‘primal eating’ since it is plainly assumed in times before utensils, people used their hands to eat.Eating with the hands evokes great emotion, it kindles something very warm and gentle and caressing. Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon.

How it started?
Fork usage primarily came from Italy where eating hot pasta with bare hands was a problem. During the Renaissance, Italian culture became the trend and the table manners of eating with fork & knife spread elsewhere. Fork & knife, make real sense when you have bulk meat that you want to cut. Also, when the foodstuffs are little more homogenized, these devices work better. 

In western culture youngsters were expected to master the art of food poking, scooping and balancing, even though using our hands was so much more convenient and practical.  Over the time they became conditioned that utensils were the way. The natural instinct to pick food up with our hands was eventually snuffed out as they became accustomed to and better at the art of utensil use.

Where it is seen?
Eating with the hands is common in many areas of the world, including parts of Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East.

Indian foods are so diverse in form and structure that no group of metallic devices would really do the complete job. You need to use all the dexterity of your fingers to manage the food. It is not without reason that we are given opposing thumbs. The kind of food you eat decides the kind of utensils you use. There is no one size fits all. If it is a burger or a sandwich, you better eat it with bare hands as it’s difficult to eat every fry with fork and trying to cut the burger with a knife.

Indian food tastes best when eaten with your fingers.  There is a tactile dimension added to the eating process.  Besides, Indian foods are designed to be eaten by hand.  Breads are to be torn and wrapped around foods.  Rice is customarily blended with curries so each mouthful is unique.  If you eat off a banana leaf trying to use a knife and fork would shred your plate.

Vedic knowledge
Eating  food with  hands is an ancient practice, one that dates all the way back to the time of the Vedas. The actions involved in eating have been derived from mudras (hand positions) that are the basis for yoga, meditation and classical Indian dance. According to the Vedas, the digits on our fingers and toes represent the five elements. It is believed that these five elements work on the food, cleansing it of any negative vibes and preparing it for us to eat.

Each finger aids in the transformation of food, before it passes on to internal digestion. Gathering the fingertips as they touch the food stimulates the five elements and invites Agni to bring forth the digestive juices. As well as improving digestion the person becomes more conscious of the tastes, textures and smells of the foods they are eating, which all adds to the pleasure of eating.

       Panchamahabhutas in fingers
  • Thumb: Fire (Agni) 
  • (You might have seen children sucking their thumb; this is nature's way of aiding the digestion at an age when they are unable to chew.)
  • Index finger: Air (Vayu/Varun)
  • Middle finger: Heaven/ Ether /Space(Akash)
  • Ring finger: Earth (Prithvi)
  • Little finger: Water (Jala)


      Science behind Eating With Hands


  • Unlike when you eat with a spoon or fork, your fingers come in contact with your food before you put it in your mouth. Nerve endings in your fingers sense the temperature and texture of the food, thereby prepare your brain for what you are going to be eating and triggering the release of the appropriate digestive juices and enzymes.
  • Ayurvedic wisdom teaches that our bodies can respond to this food-touch by producing the needed enzymes and digestive juices before the food even meets our lips and that the fingers themselves even contain enzymes which start the digestive process upon first touch.
  • When food is touched with the hands, there is automatically more careful attention placed on it – how you will retrieve it, what the temperature is, how much you can carry, how the hand must be held in order to keep the food in it.

          Attention and satisfaction:
  • When you eat with cutlery, it is a more mechanical process than when you eat with your hands. When you eat with your hands, you have to actually pay attention to what you eat. Using utensils can become more mechanical, done without even thinking, as there is no actual physical contact with the food until it touches the lips.  
  • Not only do you experience the food more and enjoy it better, you are also more aware of what you are eating and how much. Mindless eating is one of the biggest causes of weight gain, whereby eating carefully is a much healthier option.
  • You often need to look at the food and focus on what you are putting into your mouth. Mindful eating improves the assimilation of nutrients from the food you eat, enhances digestion and gives you satisfaction leading to better health and a calmer, stress-free life.
          Healthy Bacteria:
  • We have some bacteria, known as normal flora, found on our skin. These bacteria are not harmful to human instead they protect us from many harmful bacteria from outside environment. It is required to establish normal flora in various parts of our body like in mouth, throat, intestine, gut etc for the betterment of health.
  • Eating with spoon for long time can change the arrangement of normal flora. With this, the pattern of normal flora can be changed in the gut. It results reduced synchronous immunity to environmental bacterial germs.
          Temperature sensor:
  • Your hands also act as a very effective temperature sensor. When you eat with a spoon or fork, the food goes directly from the plate to your mouth, so you may not realize if it is too hot. When we touch our food before putting it into our mouths the millions of nerve endings on the tips of our fingers are getting a temperature and texture reading that is immediately sent to the stomach. So you are less likely to put food that is too hot into your mouth, effectively preventing you from scalding your tongue.
          Limitations of spoon n fork
  • Dosa is one of the famous southern delicacies. It is 10 times thinner than a pancake and has to be eaten with sauces of different densities. You need a superhuman effort to use a fork to eat this. 
  • Many of the Indian foods come stuffed. Here is Vada pav (equivalent to burger) It’s not possible to eat vada pav with spoon n fork 
  • In short, there are liquids, semisolid, powders, stuffed food, extremely thin layers and so on in our cuisine. A combination of this is too much to handle for a knife & fork.
          Etiquette of eating with hand
         Cleanliness of hands
  • Hand Is Most Hygienic, When You Wash Properly with particular attention paid to the fingernails. Having long fingernails in India is considered unhygienic.
  • Eating with one’s hands does automatically create a greater need for napkins and soap. There is really no getting around the cleanliness issue when eating with ones hands. However, when approaching food with the knowledge that utensils will not be used there becomes a higher likelihood that hand washing will compulsorily take place before the meal. 
         Good Manners
  • There are conventions of good manners when eating with the fingers, but they do change a bit from area to area. 
  • The most basic is that in the North of India it is polite to dirty only the first two segments of your fingers.  Since Northerners eat a lot of breads and generally have drier curries, this doesn't pose much difficulty. 
  • In the South, where they eat lots more rice, and enjoy very soupy curries, you can get your whole hand into the action.  Try not to get carried away, though.  Having curry juices running down toward the elbow would be considered a bit low class.
         Use your right hand
  • It is very important to eat with your right hand only.  
  • Your left hand is reserved for other functions (toilet related) and should not handle food, especially other people's food.  
  • Usually, your left hand rests on the table or your lap while you eat. Though it is acceptable to take a piece of bread, say, in your left hand and tear off pieces with your right, it is better to only use the right hand, pinning the bread with your little finger and tearing with your thumb and forefinger.  
  • You can use your clean left hand to serve yourself (using a utensil) or pass a plate of food.  Don't plunge either hand into food in a communal serving dish.
          For left handers
  • The question of what a left-handed person should do is a bit complicated.  If it is at all possible, try and eat with your right hand. 
  • If it is too awkward, use the left, but perhaps explain to your dinner companions that you are left handed and cannot eat with your right hand. 
          Things to remember
  • Don’t bring the plate to your mouth; bring the food to your mouth. Lower your head instead.
  • Take small amounts of food each time.
  • Make sure the food does not touch your palms and don’t put your fingers into your mouth.
  • Use your thumbs to push the food inside.
  • Don’t lick your fingers.
  • The hands are considered the most valuable organ of action(karmendriya). As mentioned in the given below vedic prayer…
          Karaagre Vasate Lakshmi Karamadhye Sarasvati |
          Karamuule Tu Govinda Prabhaate Karadarshanam ||
  • Meaning-At the top of the palm dwell Devi Lakshmi ( goddess of wealth) and at the middle of the hand dwell Devi Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) , At the base of the hand dwell Sri Govinda (Lord Vishnu is the Sustainer of life)  ; Therefore one should Look at one’s Hands Early in the Morning and contemplate on them. Hence, this verse suggests that the divinity lies in our hands.)
  • Many things within Hindu culture seem weird and unusual but once we go deep into it, we find that a surprising and vast amount of knowledge is hidden in it.
  • Indian mothers like to feed their babies by hand. And there is really nothing in the world as tasty as a ball of food fed to you at any age by your mother. Its composition is perfectly and instinctively calibrated by her fingers. You may have noticed that elders in the family hardly ever use utensils to measure all the different type of masala(spices), and would instead prefer to use their hands to measure the quantity instead.
  • Using our hands to eat is a well established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of. Millionaire here eats the same way a pauper does. You eat with conviction and passion when using your hands.
  • Eating with your hands is not only potentially healthier than utensil eating; it can be a lot more fun!  Next time you have a big meal with your friends or family, try serving it up without spoon n fork and see the response. It’s sure to make for lively conversation and a lot of laughter!

          Stay healthy !


Siddhesh said...

Nice and well-written. Appreciate it more after I have become a father! :)

Anonymous said...


Karen Peltier said...

As a westerner who's used to eating with utensils mostly, I honestly have never thought about all the benefits of eating with your hands. So, I found your article really interesting. And it does make sense.

When I have had the opportunity to eat with my hands (e.g., Ethiopian food), I must say that I've joined it and found it much more "social" somehow. It was a true dining experience where you feel connected to those who are sharing your food.

Dr.Vaishali Gautam Kamat said...

Thanks for your valuable comments

Julia peter said...

Nice and well-written. Appreciate it more after I have become a father!
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Dr.Vaishali Gautam Kamat said...

Thanks Julia...


Being big on natural foods, I liked the article very much. Having been doing research on prosthetic/robotic hand, the description of natural hand (panchamabhutas) is good and I used this info on my presentation, of course with proper acknowledgement to Dr. Vaishali Kamat. I am a big fan of eating with hands although we lived in USA for over 30 years.

Desineni Subbaram Naidu,

Dr.Vaishali Gautam Kamat said...

Thanks Desineni subbaram naidu for appreciation !

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