One of the things we had to learn when we're young, is eating with fork and knife. Nothing more complicated for a child to hold the utensils right and trying to eat the delicious food. What a frustration that can be! All young children - also adults - tend to eat food with their hands.
Hands are also perfect tools for the job and could easily replace our utensils: a fork or four fingers, a thumb and a better grip, all fingers joined together can be our spoon (although I wouldn't drink soup out of my hand) and well the knife, that's a bit more complicated for meat, but for people in India who're mostly vegetarian, that doesn't pose a problem. Moreover, eating with our hands, can be so much fun. Imagine eating chips with a fork or trying to cut a burger with your knife?
Food is also more then just taste. It appeals the eyes (sight), nose (smell), tongue (taste), fingers (touch) and, sometimes, ears (crackling of papadums). Food, in its own interpretation, appeals to all the five senses. Using your hands gives you a tactile connection with your food.
Eating with our hands in Europe, until the first spoon came
In the beginning of time, we were all eating food with our hands. In the Paleolithic Period, when humans started to develop primitive stone tools, also spoons started to be used, in a primitive form. Spoons could be shells or chips of wood.
During the Middle Ages, spoons, generally made of wood or horn were supplied by dinner hosts. Royalty often had spoons made of gold, and other wealthy families generally had silver spoons. However, beginning around the 14th Century, spoons made of tinned iron, brass, pewter, and other metals, as illustrated by the spoons below, became common. The use of pewter especially made spoons more affordable for the general populace.
Eating dinner, after killing your neighbor
The first use of knife, wasn't being a utensil, but that of a tool of cutting and a weapon. Only quite recently, the knife had been designed specifically for table use. Knives used to cut and eater dinner, were sharply pointed, but no one forgot that they were also weapons. King Louis XIV was the one who found it uncomfortable, as the eating utensil was also a threat of danger at any moment, even under seemingly friendly circumstances. When the fork became popular in Europe, the need for a pointed knife at the table lessened, and that's where Louis comes in. In 1669, the French king ruled all pointed knives at the dinner tables to be illegal.
And then we have our fork, who were originally evolved from the knife. Aristocrats would use one knife to cut the food and a second to spear and eat it. Forks are handy, but they were once counted as the most scandalous of utensils. The use of the fork got its start in Europe during the superstitious Middle Ages. The Venetian clergy had clearly stated their position on the subject: God provided humans with natural forks (i.e., fingers) and it was an insult to his design to use a metal version. Moreover, fork use represented "excessive delicacy," which was apparently very bad.
Somehow, fork use still spread through Europe over the next 500 years, and despite the wishes of the clergy, it was considered an Italian affectation in Northern Europe.
Eating with your fingers with manners
In spite of these utensils used in Europe, people continued to use their hands for eating with a correct way to use one’s fingers at mealtime. Around 1550, it became the custom that refined people ate ate with only the first three fingers, thus clearly distinguishing the lower class who used all five from the upper class. Erasmus, Dutch humanist and author of the first modern book of manners in 1526, was among the first concerned about table manners. He insisted that diners never lick their fingers or wipe them on their coats. It was better, according to Erasmus, to wipe one’s fingers on the tablecloth, a custom that, unfortunately, some people observe today.
In parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is still custom that people eat with their hands and also here, some rules are to follow. So before you dive with your fingers in your lunch, check first how your neighbor is doing it. It's not always so easy and you could even easily burn your fingers if you don't watch out.
According to the country where you are and the foods cooked, manners differ. In India, after washing our right hand (or both), we only use the right hand, scoop the curry or veggies onto flatbread (naan, roti or chapati) with a twist of your wrist. Using your fingertips, bring the food to your mouth.
Fufu, mostly made of manioc, shaped into a big ball and served with soup and meat, is a popular dish in parts of Central and Southern Africa. Before sitting down to eat, two water bowls will be placed in front of you for washing your hands before and after the meal. Once ready to eat, pull off a small piece of fufu, make a dent in it and use it to scoop up the soup. Much like in India, eating with the left-hand is considered disrespectful, and one should use their thumb and first two fingers to pick up and push food into your mouth.
In the Middle East the eating etiquette doesn’t differ much from Africa and India in the Middle East. It is common, however, to take food from a communal plate that sits in the center of the table, scooping the food with pita bread.
Eating with your hands is more then a habit
Eating habits differ all over the world. Saying that eating with hands, is backwards, is nothing more then a prejudice. Different reasons are behind the use of hands, similar as why in Europe we use fork and knife and why Chinese people prefer chopsticks.
Eating with your hands is about sharing. And if you find a piece of meat close to you that’s especially good, you can share it with your neighbor
In Morocco, Raiss El Fenni, the youngest in a family of 12 children, has a lot of practice in sharing. “Eating is almost a sacred ritual,” says owner Fetlework Tefferi, whose Ethiopian award-winning restaurant just celebrated its 20th year. Besides the rules of hand washing and right hand only, she adds another rule from her native Ethiopia, “Once the tray of food is laid on the table, no one rises until all are done and the tray removed. We chew slowly, with closed mouths and a calm dignity. The food is sacred. It’s not polite to rush through your meal.”
By eating slowly, digestion improves. Touch is one of the most strong and often used sensation in the body. When we touch our food with our hands, the brain signals our stomach that we are about to eat. This in turn, readies the stomach to digest the food it will receive, aiding in better digestion. Eating with hands promotes also mindful eating: it requires that you pay attention to what you are eating. You often need to look at the food and focus on what you are putting into your mouth.
In India, according to the Ayurvedic texts, we are all made up of five main pranas or life energies. These five elements correspond to each finger on our hand (your thumb indicates fire, index finger correlates with air, middle finger indicates sky, ring finger stands for earth and little finger indicates water). An imbalance of any one of these elements can lead to diseases. When we eat with our hands we usually join our fingers and thumb to eat, this is actually a mudra, a form of mudra vigyan, or the study of mudras and their healing power on the body. Therefore when we eat we are putting together all the five elements and energizing the food we eat so it helps us become healthy and keep all our pranas in balance.
Humans all over the world eat with their hands, from only sandwiches or chips to curry meals and meat dishes. We can make a stronger connection with the food we eat and care for what we put in our mouth. Or simply, we can enjoy the aroma which stayed on our fingers after we washed up at the end of the meal and enjoy again the nice moment we shared with family or friends.