Zoremi is not a big fan of Indian food. She can’t bear the taste of masala in pretty much every single dish, the way they like it here in Goa.
She comes from Darjeeling, in the North East side of India, where – as she tells me – the local cuisine is more similar to Chinese, since it’s so close to the Himalayas and Tibet.
As she mentions it, I notice her beautiful eyes, shaped like an almond stretched up on one side. She embodies a graceful mixture of all the cultures rooted in this ancient side of the planet.
“I miss Darjeeling” she tells me while coating my nails with a thin veil of red polish. “I miss the monkeys knocking at my window in the morning. I would get up at 7 am just to watch them play. They are so cute!”
It took me a couple of days (ok, maybe three or four) to get over the paralyzing sense of culture shock I felt at my first encounter with India.
After a luxurious layover in Doha, in one of the most opulent airport lounges in the world, the only distinguishable aspect of Goa International Airport seems to be the moldy smell that emanates from its outdated radiators, which pump out air conditioned to fight against the heavy waves of heat of the Goan summer.
The immense piles of dirt scattered on the sides of the streets is something I am pretty used to after having hanged in South East Asia for a while. What really freezes me are the “restaurant crowds”.
I have seen Indian old ladies sitting in a five star resort scooping out curried gravy with their hands, mixing it with rice – always with their four fingers – and stuffing it in the mouth of the grandchildren.
One bite for kiddos, one bite for Grandma.
I have seen thirty year old managers talking business while fishing pieces of tandoori chicken from their colleague’s plates. Always, religiously with their hands.
Even distinguishable wealthy families, while chatting over a typical Sunday brunch, would shamefully gulp down mouthful of mutton stew and aloo gobi with their bare hands.
All this without a server batting an eye.
I can’t lie. Beside looking pretty primitive, these scenes quite perplex me. If eating this way is not only accepted, but considered normal, I can already envision the level of hygiene there must be in the kitchen.
Zoremi’s favorite Chinese dish is Dandan Noodle Soup. Since I assume she can’t eat that with her hands, I take a leap of courage and ask her what’s all the fuss around sticking a hand into a hot plate of Biryani.
She smiles. “No Ma’am, we only eat with our fingertips. No usage of our palm is allowed. That would be wrong”.
If at first her answer doesn’t really comfort me, but as she carries on I start loosen up my position.
“You know, according to Ayurvedic texts, each finger is an extension of one of the five elements. When you eat with your hands, you are supposed to do so by joining all fingers together. This is believed to improve our consciousness of the taste of the food we eat. Not only are you feeding your body, but also your mind and spirit.”
I am intrigued by this concept and eager to learn more. As my manicure is done, I decide that after a few nights of room service it’s time to venture at “Casa Sarita”, the amazing Goan restaurant of the Park Hyatt Goa.
Forkless eaters don’t scare me anymore.
Zoremi’s gracefulness in making something I considered “savage” look “appealing” made me ready to embrace the culture and cross the barrier of what’s ok and what’s not.
I go back to my usual self and start badgering the Chef with questions.
He gets me excited to try some local specialties: Dudiacho Mergol, pumpkin and grated coconut meat cooked with mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut milk; Goan unpolished rice and Sannas steamed spongy rice cakes, made with rice flour and coconut milk fermented with the sap of the coconut palm, that remind me of the Cambodian Akors.
Needless to say, this is one of the best Indian meals I have ever had. And this time, instead of focusing my attention on what the people around me use to eat, I point my eyes at my smartphone, keen to discover what lays behind the Ayurvedic traditions of eating with hands.
I pick up some interesting concepts: Ayurveda considers hands to be our most precious organ of action, and gathering the fingertips as they touch the food stimulates the five elements (Ether or Space, Water, Air, Earth and Fire), making the person more conscious of the tastes, textures and smells of the foods they are eating, which makes the whole experience more pleasant.
And apparently, this eating practice has some great benefits too:
The 7 Benefits of Eating With Your Hands:
It’s totally natural
Eating with your hands is common in most parts of the world. Hands used to be our utensils before the appearance of cutleries, a man-made invention.
It improves digestion
When you touch the food with your hands, the millions of nerves endings in your fingers transmit the message to your brain that you’re about to eat. This message is then passed to your stomach, which starts releasing the digestive juices and enzymes that are needed for digestion.
In addition to that, nerve endings in your fingers can even sense the temperature and texture of the food you are about to eat and thereby prepare your brain to trigger the release of the appropriate digestive juices and enzymes before the food even meets our lips.
It promotes mindful eating
Eating with your hands requires you to be fully present. And a calm, aware state of mind allows optimum digestion and helps with not overeating.
Also, while eating with fork and knife can become part of mechanical, perpetrated in front of the TV, when you eat with your fingers you feel more connected with your food.
Not only does mindful eating improve the assimilation of nutrients from the food you eat, it also enhances digestion and make you leave the table with a calmer state of mind.
It engages all senses
The smell of your cooking fills your home. The feast looks appetizing. You hear how crunchy it is as you take that first bite. And of course it tastes delicious.
But as far as feeling it, you’re limited to the textures you experience in your mouth. Eating with your hands adds a tactile dimension to your meal and engages all of your senses.
It helps providing our gut with healthy bacteria
As long as we wash them before eating, the skin of our hands is populated with healthy bacteria, known as normal flora, that can protect us from other harmful bacteria that come from the outside environment.
Eating with your hands boost our gut’s natural immunity to environmental bacterial germs.
It prevents you from burning your palate and tongue
Our hands are very effective temperature sensors. When you eat with a fork, the food goes directly from the plate into your mouth, and you may not realize that’s too hot.
When you touch our food with our hands instead, the nerve endings on your fingertips send a temperature reading to the stomach, effectively preventing you from scalding your tongue.
It forces you to do one thing at the time
The last benefit? With food all over your fingers, you are stuck doing one thing at a time, and when it’s time to eat you need to put down the phone and just relax and dine.
Not like me, researching for this article in the middle of a delectable Indian dinner.
Now that I know all this, I am ready to go back to ordering room service starting from tomorrow. Only this time I am not doing it to escape ‘rude’ guests, but because I am ready to give eating with my hands a try. Just not in public (yet).
Who knew how mind opening a manicure can be? 😉
Jaipur is in the west of India where the food is super heavy and loaded with “masala”!!!
Thanks for for your feedback! The city was actually Darjeeling, I just fixed it 🙂
I had a feeling but no sweat 🙂 hope the comment didn’t offend you!
Glad you loved India…But you forgot the most important thing about eating with hands! The taste! Maybe its psychological but for me, cutlery can never do justice to the flavour of the food! There’s something about that the joy of squishing food between your fingers that adds such a depth of flavour to the food!
Not at all! Thanks for bringing it to my attention so I could fix it 🙂 That’s so interesting what you said, I get it.
I love learning about your traditions and can’t wait to explore more of India 🙂
Feel free to shoot if you need any info or anything else…will be more than happy if I can help in anyway…at the least, can direct you to an at resource if i’m unable to do anythin..
Hi Ambra, I really love this article. The concept of eating with our hands is foreign to me but so fascinating. I never realized there were benefits to eating this way. Thanks so much for sharing this interesting and enlightening article. xo Debra
Debra, thanks so much for reading and for being so open minded! It took me a while too to understand, but this experience really taught me that it’s all relative and there is no right or wrong. There’s a reason even behind the things that seem the weirdest to us!
Ambra, this is fascinating. With this information, I can see that intuitively I always at some point eat with my hands. For example before rincing my Vitamix I get the last bits out with my fingertips and eat it, as probably many of us do. My daughter has always called me Winnie the Pooh bear with his honey when I clean out the Vitamix. I can see that before having my smoothie, I have already informed my cells of what is to come. In a meal too, I often have a sneaky mouthful of goodness with my fingers. I say “sneaky” because of what was inculcated as polite and impolite around eating with your hands, of course. This article is an eye opener. Thank you so much, as always, for sharing your experiences with us. Much love to you.
Thanks so much for adding your perspective Sylph! I am totally guilty of collecting leftover smoothies and sauces from the Vitamix too… So hard to resist and that’s the best way to get it out! 🙂
Love your article aanvraag, in Surinam all the different cultures are familiair with eating with their hand(s) never new the benefits behind this custom. I live in the Netherlands now, will purposely try to eat more with my hands~ * ~ Thank you xoxo
Elvira, thanks so much for your feedback!! I would love to learn more about Suriname culture, and even visit one day! I am glad to hear my article inspired you and I send you a big hug!
Thank you for sharing you insights. (I use to joke with my spouse that in Mexico we learned to eat with our hands using tortillas instead of utensils. I grew up eating tacos and most of our foods with tortillas (some utensils). This was just a way we ate at home. When I married my husband, I was not use to seeing a beautiful table setting place with all the utensils, plates, cups and glasses at the table.) I can only imagine other cultures who eat with their hands feel about us. Btw, I love Indian Cuisine. It truly is all relative, there is no right or wrong way. Learning to accept and be okay with the “why” behind cultures is eye opening and a beautiful experience.
Arisela, thanks so much for your wonderful feedback!! I did not know that about Mexico, but it does make a lot of sense: tortillas can be totally used as plates too!
I am so glad to hear you enjoyed my article, traveling is the best way to understand other cultures and feel that at the end of the day we all have something in common 😉
Us Filipinos eat with our hands. Always have. Its more “sanitary” than utensils in my opinion, as WE are the ones that know where our hands have been. Who knows where someone’s utensils have been… have they been washed properly, was it dropped, was soap used…the questions are ENDLESS. BUT with our hands, we wash and soap them before AND after we eat. 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing Lace, that actually makes a lot of sense!!
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