Eating with Hands

I’ve done this many times eating a wide range of homemade international cuisines. It’s been a fun learning experience that I recommend doing.

I had a Filipino roommate in the fall semester of my senior year in university. She was a transfer student from Rutgers University and was studying for her second bachelor’s degree. She had already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Manila at the age of 20 (she told me that in the Philippines, university students normally graduated in just three years). She wanted to continue her education in the US but thought that pursuing a master’s in the US was going to be too difficult and decided to get another bachelor’s program because she felt that she could ease into the intensity of studying at an American university more easily that way rather than going straight into a master’s program. She was my favorite roommate out of the five that I had in university and she was also the last one. She was the first roommate I could talk to and could actually go out with. I loved hearing how she felt about being a Filipino in the US (I used to love listening to foreigners tell me what they thought was unusual or sad about living in the US).

She told me that she was eating lunch once in one of the dining halls at Rutgers and watched an international student from Malaysia eat noodles in curry sauce he made himself with his hands and he stood out because of it. She said that it was also customary in the Philippines to eat with hands, and this was also the case in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, for some Singaporeans and South Asians (and many Africans and just about every Arab) but she said she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself and accustomed herself to eating with silverware. However, she told me that she couldn’t understand why Americans (or more people in the world for that matter) didn’t eat with their hands because eating with hands was practical and the connection between the diner and their meal was a much closer if one ate with their hands. She explained that it wasn’t to messy to eat with hands if one were careful and got used to learning how to do so for years.

The Malaysian student drew a lot of attention from other students that day when my roommate was also there having lunch. My roommate told me that she didn’t wish for anyone to look down on her if she ate with her hands like she did in the Philippines which was why she adjusted herself to using cutlery. My roommate laughed and said she admitted that it didn’t look hygienic eating with hands the way that the Malaysian student did because there was a lot of curry sauce in his noodles and he licked his fingers a lot; it looked as if he consumed his fingers more than noodles.

When I listened to my roommate tell her story, I thought that it made sense to use hands to eat meals but that noodles and other dishes that consisted a good helping of sauce and soup were the hardest to eat with bare hands. I think, though, that modern humans are so uptight about being clean (or at least smelling like it).

I’ve been thinking about meal experiences I’ve had with Southeast Asian, Arab, South Asian and Ethiopian people when everyone ate freely with their hands.

I remember when I was in Singapore and visited ‘India Town’ and entered a cafeteria where only South Asian food, mainly Indian, was served and where almost everyone was of South Asian descent and eating with their hands. I looked around as I sat at one side of a long table myself and when I walked around reading the menus of every restaurant that was there. There were sinks in that cafeteria for diners to wash their hands before and after eating their meals. There were spoons and forks for people who may want to use them but they were hardly accepted by the diners. I opted to use a spoon and slowly ate my Indian meals with it.

I remember another time when I taught an Ethiopian child in his home in Boston and his mother used to serve me anjera (a traditional Ethiopian bread that is really thin and tastes sour) that she made in her kitchen (she showed me the special equipment that she used to make anjera) told me that anjera was eaten in every meal in her native Ethiopia. Her child was only eight and he was a special needs child who didn’t read well. I used to read stories with him and he would listen and follow; he understood speech more than words on a page (he strictly learned by listening, not by reading anything from the board or a sheet of paper). His mother used to insist that I eat her food before leaving after every lesson was over. She was one of the most enthusiastic people I knew who wanted so much for a someone not familiar with her country’s dishes to sample them. I ate her anjera and mixed vegetable dish that reminded me of a sort of casserole or stew with my hands because she said that I should try using my hands like she did (she would eat with me sometimes). She persuaded me that eating with hands made food more pleasurable to eat.

I remember when I was invited to Pakistani classmate’s home when I was in seventh grade to have lunch in her family home in Roxbury on a Saturday. The apartment smelled of spices that clung to each other in a way that I couldn’t separate them individually at all. Her mother was dressed in traditional Pakistani dress with her long, thick hair done in a long braid. She happily served me naan and a really spicy soup. She also served a meat dish. She smiled widely and said in Urdu with gestures that I ought to eat with my hands. I did as she advised me to but I had my soup with a spoon (soup is always eaten with a spoon; no way to have it with hands!). My classmate’s mother laughed loudly (but not maliciously) when my face turned red as I dug into the soup. It was so hot but delicious. She offered me more hot sauce which I declined and of which she laughed and patted me on the back. My classmate smiled too as she was pleased, like her mother, that I loved the food very much, and didn’t adamantly say that I would rather eat with a fork and spoon.

In the room that I shared with my Filipino roommate, we ate the snacks that she prepared in the dormitory kitchen with our hands. She asked me if the food tasted somehow better when it was eaten with hands. I loved having authentic Filipino food so much with her that I replied that I did.

Because of my experiences eating with my hands, I’ve gotten into the habit of eating a beef patty between three fingers (my index and middle fingers and my thumb) of my right hand at barbecues (without any bread or condiments; just plain, pure, juicy beef). I prefer using a spoon as my main eating utensil but I have started to use my hands as much as I can without caring about what other people who culturally aren’t used to using their hands to eat thought. I would eat appetizers like pigs in blankets and deviled eggs and even salads with hands and I would usually eat alone but I would reminisce over vivid memories of eating with people who traditionally ate with their hands.

My memories and food are my company sometimes and they are lovely enough for me not to miss people that much.

These days, at my workplace canteen in Istanbul, I take out my pomegranate (or two) out of my bag along with the bowl, knife and spoon that I also carry with me and begin to slowly remove the seeds from the pomegranate, usually at a table alone. Red juice from the seeds temporarily stain my hands. The pomegranate skin pile up in pieces as I tear parts of the skin apart with my hands to get at the nourishing seeds. Some days when I have my pomegranate, I think about using my hands as eating implements in the past.

If eating with hands is done by millions of people worldwide, then I don’t think that it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘improper’ for me to use my hands if I wish when I happen to be with a group of people who don’t use their hands to eat.

I figure that actions that many people do somewhere in the world that work well can be done anywhere. Why not?

Acting a little differently isn’t invading a culture; it isn’t threatening a host culture either. All of us are just human beings who have grown up used to doing things a little differently. Understanding other perspectives is always good.

Regarding eating with hands, when the world was first created, didn’t come with forks and spoons after all. Eating with hands is legitimate. Our hands are the most basic tools that we own that we often forget are tools. Let’s keep in mind that eating with our hands isn’t a bad thing.

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