Photos and Words by Nandini Ahuja
When someone tells a 7-year-old to eat a mound of rice with her hands, she does. She does it with a Cheshire cat grin and in spite of her disapproving mother. That 7-year-old was me on a visit to Jaipur, India with my family, when for the first time, I was denied a spoon for my plate of food.
“It tastes better, you’ll see. Trust me,” demanded a relative who I had just met and for some reason trusted.
As someone of Indian descent, I had grown up eating roti, round, flat breads, with my hands. But the concept of eating rice with my hands just seemed odd, dirty and slow compared to the way I would normally scoop it up with a silver shovel. Naturally, I wanted to try it.
I spent the next two weeks of my stay in the Pink City perfecting my rice gathering and devouring skills next to my adept cousins. Dinner had never tasted this good, which was by no means an insult to my mother’s superior cooking. Cutting out the middleman really did give my food a new flavor. However, when my vacation ended and I boarded the plane, I said goodbye to India and hello to utensils once again.
While most would grimace at the thought of eating rice without a fork, spoon or chopsticks, the idea of dining simply with our hands is one worth exploring. Stasia Bliss of Liberty Voice writes, “Experts say eating with the hands engages all the senses and keeps one present while eating. Using utensils can become more mechanical, done without even thinking, as there is no actual physical contact with the food until it touches the lips” in her article “Eating with Your Hands is Healthier.” Eating, like so many other activities, has become a mere cog turning in our life machine--helping us move forward, but not adding anything special. The words, “grabbing” and “stuffing” can now describe our habits with food, taking the relish out of mealtime.
Ayurvedic teachings concentrate on the importance of our hands as 'organs of action' (Eating with Your Hands is Healthier). “When we touch our food before putting it into our mouths, the millions of nerve endings on the tips of our fingers are getting a temperature and texture reading that is immediately sent to the stomach,” Stasia writes. The idea of acquainting ourselves with our food before we allow it to enter our bodies dates back centuries. Reading about its wisdom has me wondering: have I been missing out on a full-sensory experience by using a fork?
Roy Choi, a chef at A-Frame, his restaurant in Culver City, CA, has created a menu that is utensils-optional. When interviewed by the New York Times about his unique dining idea, he said, “You eat with conviction and passion when using your hands.” This is a feeling to which I can now say that I relate. When tearing off a gooey, hot slice of Margherita pizza, my eyes, nose, mouth--even my ears if I’m listening for predators preying on my dinner--are engaged far more than when I’m listlessly scraping my fork on a plate.
Is eating with your hands dirty? In some regions of the world, washing your hands before a meal is compulsory (though it should be everywhere) because your fingers will be your tools. This is the same, if not cleaner, than using utensils that were questionably washed by someone else. “I hope that people let their guard down and throw out some of the rules we have regarding etiquette,” Choi says, “and connect like animals” (Mind Your Manners).
I won’t be melting all my utensils into a trophy for greatest food writer just yet. I will continue to neatly fork my pasta and spoon my oatmeal at the dining hall so I don’t appear nuts. But I can’t deny the fun I had in Jaipur, just me and my rice, nothing between us.