While the present scenario might not be the right time to champion eating with hands, we must also not forget that eating with your hands, the desi way, is the most satisfying way to eat. True relish is in finger-licking goodness. From maternal love to romantic gestures, eating — and feeding — with hands, truly is at the core of the Indian experience.
I can’t remember how young I was, but I was very young, and I don’t remember which book it was, but it was a book that introduced me to the Bengali phrase, “kobji dubiye khawa”. When literally translated, it means eating with your elbows dunked in. It could refer to the habit of mixing curries with rice, and how the gravy can often slide down the arm while one feeds oneself. But, as I grew up, I realised that it denoted satisfaction and unabashedness. When one doesn’t care about how he or she looks while eating, can shamelessly dig in, and eats to her or his heart’s content, one has truly eaten with the elbows dunked in. In Hindi, a popular proverb says something similar — “Aap ruchi khaana, Par ruchi pehenna” — You eat according to your taste and preferences, but must dress to others’ liking (I obviously don’t agree with the second bit).
I am not going to ramble about how Ayurvedically prescribed eating with hands is. I don’t care about the health benefits. I want to talk about how pleasurable it is, how satisfying it is. Mixing rice and mutton curry with your hands, mashing up the potato into it, and pulling apart tender chunks of mutton off the bone is a toe-curling experience even before you have put the morsel into your mouth. Or knocking the shank bone on a plate and then sucking out the juicy-fatty-spicy marrow. Pulling apart a hot Butter Naan or a stretchy Roomali. Breaking open the biryani’s potato to see it turn into cream on your fingers. Scooping up cold Aamras with hot Pooris. The joys of being covered in flakes while eating a Parota. Eating a Sadya on a banana leaf and constantly trying to make sure the Sambar does not dribble onto the floor. Having Jalebis that are too hot to keep holding with one hand for too long. Stuffing Puchkas/Golgappas/Pani Puris into your mouth and chewing fast enough to be ready for the next one. Eating the summer’s first mango, lasciviously tearing off the skin with your teeth, and then biting into the juicy flesh.
The joys of actually tasting the food you eat, exploring it with all your senses, begin with experiencing it with your touch.
The satisfaction that we derive from eating with our hands might be rooted in maternal love. Few things feel as safe and wholesome as being fed by our mothers. The act of being fed by her has more to do with feeling loved, feeling comforted, and feeling safe. The primitive anxiety for personal safety is one of the first things that kick in when we are young. Being fed by a parent, with hands, much like how other mammals and birds feed their young ones (albeit with their mouths or beaks), is an ancient act of nurturing. I feel, that act gets replicated when we feed ourselves, a part of that memory living on in the action. Also, the act of feeding someone immediately makes the other person a part of the personal. Which is why, later in our lives, feeding our partners is an act of intimacy. Pages and pages of poetry have been written about how the lover’s touch sweetens the morsel, how if the lover even chooses to serve poison with his/her hands one shall happily consume it, and how one waits impatiently for the lover to fold a perfect pocket of betel leaf with condiments to kick off night-time amorous activities. Our films are filled with romantic scenes of lovers and couples sharing bites of food, eating from each other’s hands. “Apne haathon se khilaana” or feeding and serving with one’s hands, both in a romantic and familial context, is seen as a gesture of warmth, love, respect, and companionship. The Krishna-Sudama parable is also shared as an example of how it is not the lavishness of the menu but the warmth of the server that matters. Old grannies often nudge young wives to feed their husbands — “Apne haathon se khilaao, pyaar badhta hai” — as it is believed to bloom intimacy between the newlyweds. I believe that wives should stop waiting on husbands, and couples should feed and serve each other equally, if they really want to enjoy true intimacy. But yes, the act of eating together, feeding each other, is definitely an aphrodisiac. The Kama Sutra has a chapter detailing the art of serving food and feeding the partner. The Japanese tradition of Nyotaimori or body sushi is an equally intimate practice, prevalent even today. Courtesans, in every culture, were trained in the art of feeding. Later, in cinema, the West has given us enough examples of eating fruits and licking whipped cream off the lover. Also, because I mentioned Sushi, I must inform you that it is absolutely acceptable to eat Sushi with hands. Only Sashimi is to be eaten with chopsticks.
So, if anybody still needs to hear this: ignore the haters. It is a colonial mindset that imposes the strict tyranny of fork tines on people. From Africa to South America, Asia and Australia, eating with hands is acceptable, beloved, and encouraged. The national dish of the UK is Chicken Tikka Masala. I doubt they are using forks and knives to eat that with all that Naan bread.