Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finger Lickin' Good

Among the many things stereo-typed as South Indian, the one that’s gaining maximum ground (or already has) is that we eat with our hands. Not to forget how a curly-headed, ‘Aiyyo’-spouting Shahrukh made a complete mockery of it, with his spaghetti-with-curd routine in his (very forgettable) dud Ra.One. Oh yeah SRK, you thought that was being funny. I think when the movie bombed, the joke was on you!

                                                     Image Courtesy:

So yes, I have a huge problem with those who have a huge problem with people eating with their hands. Among the many things I’ve heard, it’s described as unhygienic, uncivilized, ill-mannered, disgusting… yada yada. The ironic thing is that it has somehow become a ‘South Indian’ thing – really? I don’t believe that everyone up north eat with spoons and forks. Indians (north or south) eat with their hands. It’s a South Asian phenomenon, actually. The Westerners have their cutlery and the East Asians have their chopsticks. But we have our hands. And they are good enough.

I actually smirk when I see some snobs claim that food won’t go down their gullet if they don’t have their spoons and forks. So how do you think your ancestors a generation (or two) back were having their food? And what about you as a kid? I bet you’d used your hands back then. Or at least your mother would’ve fed you with her hands – there’s a lot of love and memories there! Besides, do you eat everything with spoons/forks/knives? If you even try saying ‘yes’, I’ll give you a packet of Lays and ask you to eat it with a spoon. Or even better – a fork!

I think that the cutlery business was more of a British influence; and the people far up north were subject to it more than people down south. And we all more or less agree that naan, chapathi or roti needs to be eaten with the hand. You tear off a piece, neatly make a wrap (or roll) and you scoop (or sponge) the curry. When neatly done, there’s nothing offensive about it. The contention is regarding eating rice. Typically South Indian meals were/are served on a plantain leaf – and I bet the leaf would become shreds (making it dysfunctional) if we were to use knives/forks! And if done neatly, even rice can be enjoyed with your hands – ideally we use only the fingers (the first two segments of each finger) and make a nice little morsel of it. And it’s not like we all thrust our entire hand into our mouths. But I agree that down south, we have more watery dishes, like the rasam or sambhar. And if we need to actually ingest it, without wasting much then we use more than our fingers (the palm et al) and it does tend to be messy. I think a person should have the freedom to eat as he pleases. There might be formal occasions, say client meetings or lunch with important people – then we could take a common ground and go the cutlery way. Else, each to his own. There might be a zillion things about you that disgust me, and I am tolerant – so how about returning the favour?

Besides, eating with the hand has its benefits. It’s the most engaging way of eating – apart from pleasing your sense of taste and smell, you can also touch and feel it. This way you enjoy the textures even before you explore it in your mouth. Besides, we also get a fair idea of the temperature. How many times have you taken a spoon of soup to your mouth, only to burn your tongue? I maintain that burning your hand is far better than burning your tongue (thereby rendering the rest of the meal tasteless!)

By using your hand you can effectively control and even experiment with various combinations. The Indian meal is usually elaborate; that means a lot of curries and side-dishes. Eating with your hand allows you to customize each morsel – be it in flavour or quantity – that eating with spoons or forks can’t really provide. And it’s a practical option while eating meat; it’s easier to pluck off the last shreds of meat from the bones (thereby avoiding wastage) than using cutlery. We respect food and don’t want it to go waste! 

Let’s also say that our fingers get nimble – yeah, if you don’t believe me, try asking those first timers who felt their hands tire! I was most amused when I saw how some people were tackling the Sadya (traditional feast) arranged as part of office celebrations – some of them were throwing rice into their mouths (as if it were peanuts), some others were hoisting two to three grains above their mouths and ‘sprinkling’ it – and I am not exaggerating! Some people even plain avoid it because they really don’t want to eat with their hands (and we don’t give spoons). It really is an art – so how about trying to see how we manage to finish a meal right off the leaves, instead of making fun of us? 

And just as some things can only be eaten with a spoon (say ice cream), there are some things that can only be eaten with the hands – I can’t, for the love of God, imagine eating Mambazha pulissery* with a spoon/fork. You have to really squeeze the goodness out of it and enjoy it with rice. And although the trend these days is to serve payasam in glasses for a Sadya, I am a fan of having it from the leaf. Yes, that means scooping the flowing payasam with your hands and enjoying it with a slurp! There, there – I can already see you frown.

Let me just conclude this with an awesome quote I came across:
‘Eating with a fork and knife is like making love through an interpreter’
- (Attributed to different people - originator unknown).

*Traditional Kerala sweet and sour curry made with whole, ripe mangoes.


  1. You know, when Amma makes her famous varuttharacchu sambar, I don't wash my hand with soap after eating. I hate to have that divine fragrance wiped off from my hands.
    I'm a klutz when it comes to eating with fork and spoon and knife. I make a racket, and most of the times, I also manage to make an ebarassment out of myself. :/ I have dropped the fork SO many times! Eating with hands for me any day, except for noodles and all. If it's rice, then I have to eat it with my hands. Heck, the curry won't even get mixed properly if it's with a spoon!
    Oh and what about those people who eat Pizza with fork and knife! :/ That's like heights!

    1. Very much indeed! The lingering fragrance reminds us of a meal well enjoyed! :)
      And even I am uncomfortable using fork and spoon - I barely manage to use it well :/
      And valid point on the curry and rice not mixing properly - indeed, that just kills the whole meal experience. Why eat with so much trouble, if it won't even give you the satisfaction? And it always takes me more time to finish a meal off with cutlery. At the end of it, I feel like I've just been done with a war on the plate! Phew.

  2. Totally totally agree! In my first year at university, I got so fed up of eating rice with a fork and spoon- one day, I just packed some rice, got some curd and pickle, and went to my room so that I could kozhichify and eat :D Nothing tastes better. Aaaah, now I have cravings for an absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious sadhya

    1. Hehe. That's cool. But why take the food to your room and eat it like that? I'm guessing that it's because most people won't get it. Even I've been in such situations, where I use cutlery just because everyone is - and I don't want to look like the odd one out :(
      And I hate it!
      Well, for the Sadya... err, any chance you've relatives over there? Or a Mallu restaurant? I know, it's too much to ask for, in Singapore. But going by the standards of the enterprising Malayali - I bet there should be one there ;)

  3. Wow... I completely agree with you and hate this north Indian bigotry of poking fun at those who enjoy their meals with their hands. What is this whole deal about not letting the curry touch your hands when you eat? Some are so fussy that they refuse to let the curry touch their fingers while scooping it into the rotis... and worse, it gives them an excuse not to wash their hands after lunch!

    1. Even I don't get it - especially because only the urban people up North use cutlery; I don't believe that people in the villages up there use cutlery. Like I said, it's just because down South people eat more rice, and it gets really messy with sambar/rasam that this stereotype is stuck! Argh!

      Like someone said - the spoons/forks are shared 'resources' and God knows how many mouths its been inside. At least I trust my hands 'coz it's been inside mine only; and so I'd rather use it! Ha! Take that you snobs!

  4. Look at the comments... this is more like it... i told you na... ehheheheheheh!! I super duper like the post.... !!!! I like to eat maggi with my hands... so, sphagetti seemed to be very much related... try maadi!! And sadya... can't comment on it when the expert is giving its advice... !!

    By the way, i stopped eating non veg because everybody was supposed to eat with the spoon and fork... i thought... well, its better to stop than eating chicken with spoon... and one should see the people eating with the fork and spoon, it was disgusting... yuck!!!.... chicken kurachu muttathaaa...

    1. :)
      Yes indeed, when I eat non-veg with fork/spoon I am aware that I'm wasting a lot - but then owing to social pressure I let it be. I am not sure that when it looks yuck when people eat non-veg with fork/spoon - I've seen people with amazing cutlery skills too. They make it look like it's really simple & easy. However, nothing beats the freedom of eating with hands, according to me.



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