Monday, 10 September 2007

Eating with Fingers

If there’s one thing I have not got used to while living here it’s eating with my fingers. None of my Indian friends makes a big deal of my choice, and I think they even prefer I stick to cutlery, as then I don’t look so awkward or inept, which is just embarrassing for everyone.

(I should say that in Mumbai, among the professional and middle classes, nobody seems to care much anyway. If you go to someone’s house to eat dinner, half the folks will eat with their fingers, half will not, and nobody cares either way. Mumbai is a city that grants some freedom of action to its citizens.
If anything, in Mumbai, the overt prejudice can be against those who eat with their fingers. At four and five star restaurants or a very sophisticated dinner party, it would have to be a very confident person who would follow his or her inclination and eat with fingers).

Some ex-pat friends that I have, particularly those with NGOs, tell me however how liberating it is, how it brings us closer to the food that we eat, how sensual it is, and indeed how environmentally conscious it is – no nasty washing up liquid to have to use to wash cutlery (and if you use banana leaves instead of plates you get double green points!).
I do wonder however how they square up their washing of pots and pans – do they scour them with sand as some roadside food stalls do? Perhaps. I must ask them.

Anyway, I’ve tried it, but I don’t like it.
The biggest issue for me is probably the most trivial for others – and that is the thought of all that food getting squeezed up under my fingernails. Sad? Hmm, I guess you may be right, but we all have our issues.
The second thing is that, in most ordinary Mumbai restaurants, the water for washing one’s hands in is usually cold. Now, actually, the germ removal from a thorough scrubbing in cold water and soap is said to be around 90% - which is not bad. …What worries me is the other ten per cent of germs.
And after the meal, I can’t hack the greasy residue left on one’s fingers. Again, cold water and soap can eliminate most of that – but not all of it, and all I want to do is to find a hot water source and clean my hand thoroughly.
Are my feelings part of the slightly crazy Western obsession with hygiene? Or a perfectly permissible personal choice? I’m still considering.

It is one of those peculiar cultural impasses.

Indian friends say that it just seems prissy and affected to use cutlery – it just makes them uncomfortable.

I like to point out to them that cutlery washed in boiling hot water and detergent has a much higher rate of cleanliness than fingers ever can attain (apparently, it’s not just down to the temperature that things are washed in, but it's also due to the fact that steel cutlery is totally smooth, unlike human skin which has minute crevices) – but even those “facts” don’t convince them to change their minds at all.
Indeed, I suppose the upside of living here, vis a vis eating habits, is that it reinforces the need to wash one’s hands each and every time before eating, whether you’re having a quick bite or a meal. Since I started doing that, I’ve rarely been sick.

Of course at this point, someone wisely points out that Westerners in fact do often eat with their fingers – when they eat biscuits or pastries or sandwiches or potato chips.
Does it make sense if I say that such items, which are by nature non-sticky (well, mostly) do not fall into the same gluey category as say, a biryani? (The one exception to this rule that I can think of is those Americans who eat cheesy pizza slices with their fingers. I don’t understand that at all).
But, as the same person, again wisely, points out – you still have to deal with issue of unclean fingers touching the food you eat…
Er…yes. He’s quite right. Caught up in the web of my own logic there!

I think I should halt my ramblings at this point, while I consider the fact that there is nothing like seeing another culture to make you realise how weird and inconsistent your own is…


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Vishal Pipraiya said...

Nice post and it has a bit more entertainment value than the railway one.

I think its more to do with the conditioning than anything else. Other cultures eating pizza, biscuits and pastries with their hands notwithstanding, their compositions can be anything but as hardy as that of the Indian populace. We eat with our hands because we have always been doing so and we know that we are not going to fall sick anytime soon due to that.

Also, for a country with lot of poor people cutlery is one less thing they need to buy.

Deepa Krishnan said...

You don't think there's something fundamentally *silly* in wanting to poke your food with strange metal implements? :)

Eman K. Harris said...

^You do it when you are cooking.

Desigirl said...

there is nothing like seeing another culture to make you realise how weird and inconsistent your own is…


Anonymous said...

HI there just another perspective on the habit of eating with fingers.Have you relaized perhaps by eating with your own fingers
your immune system will get used to the germs on your fingers and may provide you with a stronger immunity?

Ramakrishnan said...

Swallowing 10% germs improves your immune system :)

Anonymous said...

In modern times, it depends on what, where and with whom you're eating. Chapathi is often broken away and dipped into gravy using fingers. The same applies for pav bhaji and the south indian dosa. It's hard to do so otherwise. (You wouldn't dip, say, chips into ketchup using spoons would you?)

Rice and gravy is usually had with spoons if you're in a slightly upscale restaurant or if you're eating from a bowl. If the consistency is very liquid, eating with hands becomes impossible.

At the end of the meal, as long as the food goes into your mouth and not down your shirt, no one really minds. :)