The subcontinent of India is widely regarded as one of the key cultural centers in the world. It is home to thousands of cultures and traditions, most of which have existed for thousands of years. Most of the social and cultural practices in India have survived for millennia and, are still practiced in the present day.
If you are thinking of visiting India, it is very crucial to have a basic understanding of the unwritten rules of etiquette to relate better with the people, and a great time in this beautiful country. One of the most important things a first-time visitor to India needs to be aware of is the dining etiquette. Eating with hands is part of this.
Indian as a country generally has a vast variety of traditional cuisines and dishes. Unlike in Western countries, the concept of courses in dining is non-existent in Indian tradition. Meals are usually served all in one go. A typical Indian meal consists of flatbreads like Roti and Naan, curries, vegetables and rice as well as sweets. Sometimes, the meal is accompanied by a bowl of fruit salad or yogurt.
While many Western countries are accustomed to using spoons, knives, and forks, eating with hands is considered standard dining etiquette in India. However, only the right hand is used for dining. Just like in many other countries in Asia, Indians usually designate the left hand for other unsavory functions, which makes it inappropriate for use at the dining table. The forefingers of the right hand are typically used for dining, and special care is often taken to ensure food does not come in contact with the palm.
Why Do Indians Eat with their Hands?
Eating with the hands is almost a universal dining etiquette in India, and is practiced by all castes. Even highly Westernized families and affluent Indians typically use their hands to eat their meals. This might come as a surprise to many Westerners who might consider the practice unhygienic. However, there are plenty of reasons why Indians eat with their hands. These include:
Using the Hands to Eat is an Ancient Indian Tradition
The practice of eating using the hands is an ancient tradition with spiritual connotations. It originated with ancient Vedic texts which teach that our bodies are in sync with the elements and every finger represents one of the five elements ( space, air, fire, water, and earth).
It was believed that by joining your fingers together when eating, one’s consciousness of the food they were eating increased. This practice was passed down over the centuries and has grown to become standard dining etiquette in India.
- Most Indian Cuisines are Difficult to Eat Using Cutlery
India is undoubtedly one of the most culinary rich countries in the world. However, most Indian cuisines are very difficult to eat using a spoon or a fork. A typical Indian meal includes different kinds of flatbreads like roti and chapati, which are not easy to eat using cutlery.
- Indian Food is Usually Served on a Banana Leaf
In most cultures, especially in South India, meals are typically served on a banana leaf instead of a plate. Even in commercial eateries and restaurants, it is not uncommon to see food being served on a banana leaf on top of a platter. This makes the use of spoons and forks very ineffective when dining, that is why Indians prefer to use their hands.
- It Encourages Mindful Eating
In Indian culture and spirituality, food is considered a critical aspect to holistic wellbeing. It is believed that proper dining can cleanse one’s body, mind, and spirit, thereby making them holy. For this reason, mindfulness is normally encouraged when dining. Since eating with the hands requires one to be attentive, the practice helps to promote mindful eating.
- It Promotes Digestion
For thousands of years, its believed that dining with hands helps in the digestion process. Whenever you touch food with your hands, the nerve endings in your finger signal the brain that you are eating. As a result of this communication, digestive enzymes are released to aid the process of digestion.
- Eating Using the Hands is More Hygienic
Contrary to what many people may believe, eating using the hands is far more hygienic and safe compared to using cutlery. This is especially true in restaurants. One can never be sure where a spoon or fork in a restaurant has been used and whether it was cleaned properly. Using the hands to eat is, therefore, a much safer way to eat in restaurants and food kiosks.
The dos and don’ts of Eating Using Your Hands in India
Although eating using the hands is a commonly accepted practice in Indian, there are several rules of dining etiquette which must be observed to maintain good manners.
If you are visiting India, here are some of the important dining practices you need to keep in mind to not offend the sensibilities of your hosts and the people you are dining with.
- Wait to be Served
Unlike in Western countries, where it is normal for everyone to serve themselves once the food is brought to the table, in India, one of two people (usually the hosts) serves everyone else. This is done to ensure the serving spoon is not dirtied by many hands touching it. It is therefore considered good manners to ask for what you want at the dinner table and wait for your turn to be served.
- Wash Your Hands Before and After the Meal
Washing hands before a meal is an important practice not just in India but also in other cultures where food is eaten using the hands. Before sitting at the dining table to partake your Indian meal, you should ensure you wash your hands thoroughly at the washroom or in a provided water-filled bowl. Apart from being hygienic practice, the washing of hands is considered proper table etiquette India. Remember, food is deemed to be sacred in India and should, therefore, be handled with clean hands.
- Learn and Apply the Right Technique
Although Westerners often use their hands when eating some foods such as pizza, burgers and sandwiches, their style of eating is vastly different from the Indians. Whereas people in Western countries might use both hands when eating, in India, only the right hand is used. Using both hands while eating is often frowned upon.
In some South Indian cultures, food is supposed to be spooned only using the forefingers and special care is taken to prevent the palm from getting soiled. This is usually considered offensive. You should, therefore, learn the right eating technique as used in the specific region in India where you are visiting.
- Eat at a Moderate Pace
In India, it is considered disrespectful to eat quickly. Food is usually regarded as a divine blessing that should be enjoyed. You should try to maintain a moderate pace at the dinner table.
- Take Small Bites
When eating with your hands in India, it is considered good manners to take only small bites of food at a go. This not only prevents food from spilling everywhere, which can be deeply embarrassing but also allows you to chew your food and digest it better. Moreover, since mealtime is considered a special social gathering, it is only prudent to enjoy in the company of others, rather than rushing to finish.
- Be Sure to Finish Your Meal
In India, wasting food is considered extremely disrespectful and is generally frowned upon. Whether you are dining at a restaurant or being hosted by a local, you should ensure there are no leftovers to be thrown out once you are done eating. As a rule of thumb, always request the person serving you to serve portions that you can complete.
- Always Thank Your Host or Chef
In India, thanking your host after a sumptuous meal is considered to be polite dining etiquette. This applies whether you are dining at a private home or in a commercial restaurant. Always remember to compliment your host to show appreciation for the delightful food you have been served.
Indians are one of the few cultures in the world that have truly mastered the art of eating using their hands. Whereas this practice is generally seen as odd or even unhygienic by some Westerners, for Indians, it offers the chance to truly enjoy a well-prepared meal. There are numerous reasons why Indians prefer to use their hands (specifically the right hand) when eating. These range from cultural and traditional reasons to health and hygiene factors.
Nevertheless, eating using the hands in India is a standard practice which is observed by all Indians, regardless of their background, status, or occasion. If you are thinking of traveling to India, try learning the art of eating with the hands as well as the dining manners of the people of this great country. This will help you enjoy the numerous culinary delight of India and help you understand the culture of its people.
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