From the prehistoric ages to the present day, the tradition of eating with your hands in India is something which is cherished, but what is the powerful reason behind this?

The American hamburger. Seen to be one of the only ‘socially’ acceptable handheld meals in the Western world. Whilst Brits feel the need to use metal tools to aid their Friday night takeaway from plate to mouth, in India, the holy trinity of spoon, fork and knife are considered superfluous.

Eating with your hands in India is considered to be spiritual and used as a way to savour the deliciousness of the dishes. Each finger represents one of the five elements, heightening the awareness of the texture, taste, aromas and temperature of the food. This activation of the senses creates new levels of joy when eating Indian food, whilst also triggering the body’s metabolism, improving the digestion process.

 “Eating Biryani with a fork and knife is like making love through an interpreter.” – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, former Prime Minister of India.

Manju Malhi is a British-born chef and food writer, specialising in Anglo-Indian cuisine. Brought up in London, she grew up surrounded by Indian culture and traditions. 

“My parents came to the UK in the late sixties and brought Indian traditions with them”, Malhi says. “When my brother and I were growing up, we were influenced by Indian cuisine and culture. The interesting thing was that my mum and dad would eat Indian food with their hands. They would tear pieces of chapati and use it to scoop up the food and put it into their mouths.”

Eating with your hands in India can be traced back to Hindu Aruvedic beliefs and the alternative medicine system. Dr Pradeep Bhattathiri was born into the Vedic tradition of India and is now a key member of the Ayurvedic Professionals Association in the UK.

Bhattathiri explained, “Ayurveda is deeply rooted in spiritualism. Teachings tell us that each finger of the hand is an extension of the five elements – air, fire, water, space and earth. For this reason, when you eat with your hands, you are creating a deeper connection with the food and the world around you. Utilising all of your fingers connects you to all of nature’s elements. This allows you to not only taste the food but also to appreciate it.”

“Religion plays such a big part in Indian eating culture. My parents were practising Hindus and eating with your hands was a time to not only  connect to their religion but also a time for respecting food.”

– manju malhi

This connection between the physical and the spiritual is something Hindus have been practising for centuries. Using your hands to eat transforms something as habitual as eating into a powerful ritual of mindfulness. 

Malhi says, “Religion plays such a big part in Indian eating culture. My parents were practising Hindus and eating with your hands was a time to not only  connect to their religion but also a time for respecting food.”

Vedic traditions teach that the body and environment are all interlinked. When there is no meditation between you and the food, such as a fork or spoon, you don’t just eat the food, but you also experience it.

Your hands also act as a tool, giving you control to mix the food before eating it. In Indian tradition, food is meant to be eaten together. Combining the flavours is meant to enhance the taste of the spices and make the dish more enjoyable to eat. 

There are several reasons and benefits to eating Indian food with your hands, such as creating awareness, slowing down your eating and improving digestion, but have you ever considered the damage your simple metal spoon could be having on your chutney?

Malhi raised the point of how cutlery can sometimes be doing more harm than good, saying, “The metal material of cutlery affects the flavour of food. If you’re eating a chutney which has vinegar and lemon juice in it with a spoon, it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth because the metal reacts with those ingredients.”

Manju Malhi, Photo Credits: Malhi

Indian etiquette states that you should not use both hands when you eat, only one for hygiene purposes. For example, if you are right-handed, then you would use that to eat with and the other for washing.  Etiquette can also change depending on whether you are in North or South India. How you use and mobilise your hands to eat, differs between the regions. 

In South India, people use their full fingers to eat, because of the rice. However, in North India that is something which is not highly appreciated.

Harpreet Sangha was born in the city of Garhshankar in Punjab and moved to the UK five years ago, she is from a higher-class family in North India and has been a practising Sikh her entire life. 

Sangha says, “I have grown up very differently from Hindu families. I always eat chapatis with my hands but when it comes to rice I will use a spoon every time. Your caste plays a big role in how you are brought up in North India, and for me, I have always been taught to use a spoon when eating rice and curry. However, the difference is that in South India, no matter your status, they will always eat with their hands.” 

So why is it that we are quick to use our hands to steal fries off our friend’s plates, but the thought of eating Madras with them is alien? 

Some propose that the reason eating curry with your hands isn’t common in the West is because of the way Western culture views Eastern culture. Since colonialism, The East was seen as uncivilised, savage and not in sync with modernity. The food was therefore also seen through that lens. Their practices of food culture were perceived as unhygienic and the thought of eating with your hands was backwards.

Western people aren’t shy when it comes to using their hands to eat KFC, after all, it is ‘finger-licking good’. Perhaps the narratives that have shaped cultural stereotypes have stopped us from learning Eastern food habits.

“I think as well, It takes time to perfect eating with your hands as they do in India”, Malhi says. “People often don’t know how to do it, especially with one hand. For example, they use both hands to tear the bread. It can be tricky and takes time to learn, a bit like chopsticks.”

Eating with your hands is also part of a bigger tradition, to spend quality time with your family. Sangha says, “Since moving to England my family has adapted slightly. I still make all the food I used to back in India, but having the time to eat it as a family in the way we used to can be challenging.” 

Malhi also spoke about how she feels the culture her parents surrounded her in has been lost. She says, “When I was younger we would all sit around the table for dinner and my mum would put the chapatis on the table, very similar to most family settings. Now I think that aspect of eating has been lost because of the cost of living and the secular society attitude, chances are you’re having your ‘TV dinner’ instead.” 

For many modern British-Indian families, keeping up this custom is something that is valued. Malhi explained how she is working to spread the traditions that her parents taught her. “In my cooking class, I want to spread the importance of eating properly. I also help and show people how to eat with their hands. I stand at the front and demonstrate with chapatis. We’ll all have a bit of food on our plates and practice. The more they do this the more they’ll start eating with their hands.”

So the next time you sit down for your Friday night takeaway, you may think twice about how you will appreciate the meal in all of its glory, in homage to breaking bread (or tearing chapati) with the East.