Culture Shock: Eating with My Fingers

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.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore helps me survive the mid-life crisis
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5 Responses to Culture Shock: Eating with My Fingers

  1. 365days2play says:

    My grandfather used to eat with his fingers too. I tried sometimes when I was younger, just to copy him and look cool, but yeah I really hate to have to wash my hands with so much soap after that.

    I was looking more at the cute kitty than Anthony Bourdain eating with his fingers….

    • bookjunkie says:

      that’s so cool! 🙂 your grandfather sounds so interesting. On that note I always wished I could have known my grandfather. In my lifetime I only had one grandma. Did you meet all four of your grandparents? Maybe one day I’ll blog about this..thanks for the idea 🙂

  2. solodialogue says:

    What an interesting post. I never thought about eating or not eating with fingers. There are finger foods that we always eat with our fingers. My son, who has autism, has not mastered eating with utensils so I think he would be quite at home eating with his fingers forever if he could.

    Love the comment about the chopsticks. I’m half Korean and so I’ve used chopsticks a lot. Did not know the story about crossing them. Thanks for sharing!! Fun stuff!

  3. plumerainbow says:

    This post is a delight to read!

    On eating with fingers, I agree with you that it’s truly an art. I remember the very first time I did it: eating rice (which is 2nd nature to me) had never been more difficult! It may not be so common here, but go Indonesia or Malaysia. Though I would be perplexed if a Westerner looks down on eating with fingers… aren’t sandwiches, burgers and pizzas eaten with fingers?

    On chopsticks: I think what is “the correct way” is overrated. I would advise a beginner to separate the chopsticks, and control the outer chopstick with the index finger and thumb, not because it is “better manners” but simply because I think this method gives one a better grip & control. One should just adopt the way best suited to him/her!

    Etiquettes are complicated and nuanced. On a stint abroad years ago, I learned that different nationalities have different practices when it comes to the fork and knife. E.g. the Europeans tend to keep knife and fork in their hands even when the knife is no longer needed. Whereas some Americans tend to cut the meat, put the knife across the back of the plate, transfer the fork from left hand to right hand, and then turning the fork tines upwards to eat. Some Brits have the tendency to push food on the back of the fork rather than on the curve of the fork (i.e. tines downwards). So, who’s to say which is the “correct” way of using the fork and knife?

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