Friday, September 26, 2008

Hands? No thanks...

It was a very disturbing sight for me when I first saw the Indians in Singapore delivering food into their mouths using hands! I was still a little kid back then when I first came to Singapore. Being from a country where races besides Chinese were uncommon, I had no contact with any Indians, let alone having seen one eating with his hand. And note that I used hand and not hands which I will explain why later (in fact I believe most Singaporeans would know the reason behind it). Personally, I found it quite gross to be eating rice and mixing them with the condiments, all using your hands!

If you are not an Indian. then you may have at some time wondered why Indians still eat with their hands. Though these days, forks and spoons are a common sigh in India, the most popular and traditional way of having food is still, sans any cutlery. While Westerners prefer to use forks, spoons and knives to eat their food and the Orientals use chopsticks, Indians prefer fingers to ‘fork in’ their food.

Ask any Indians, and he will say that the best way to completely enjoy any Indian food would be to eat them with your hands. Moreover. Indian foods are designed to be eaten with hands. The method that Indians follow when eating foods such as
naan and roti prata, is to break the bread, dip it in one of the condiments and eat it. In the past, meals were served on banana leaves and using forks and spoons to blend the curry and rice would have only ended up shredding the leaves!

One thing that should be noted is that is that Indians only eat with the right hand as the left hand is considered unclean and eating with it is frowned upon.

There is a philosophy behind this Indian practice of eating with the fingers. In India, eating is perceived as being a very sensual activity. The idea is that one should be able to enjoy the process of eating with as many of the senses as possible – taste, smell, sight, and touch.

After being in Singapore for years, Indians eating with their hands no longer turns my head. In fact, I have even transformed to adopt their culture, at least partially. I do eat my
roti prata with my hands at times, and yes, they do taste better that way! On the hindsight, I suspected that certain forms of racial prejudice were involved in my perceptions of their culture due to lack of understanding and exposure. If not, why did not I ever think that eating pizzas with hands was unhygienic?


Blogger Tiffany said...

Hi Lyon,

This is indeed a very interesting insight! Coming from a place where there are no indians at all, it will definitely be a shocker to see people eating with their hands!

If I am not wrong, I think Malays eat with their hands too. I know of a couple of Malay friends who eat rice and stuff like that with their hands. They are so good at it that once, when I was with a Malay friend at KFC, he ate all his chickens with one hand (and he peeled off all the meat only with his right hand, no mouth used!)

To me, that was an eye-opener because I can never do that, at least not until I have mastered the art of eating with one hand.

For us Chinese, I think its in our tradition to eat with both hands (ie both hands must be seen on the table whether or not you are holding a cutlery) because my mother often tells me that its rude to put one hand under the table while eating. I think its time for me to find out why this is so!


September 26, 2008 at 6:50 AM

Blogger weiren said...

Hi Lyon,

Tiffany brought up something very interesting about the right-handedness of the malay community. In fact, they do get very offended if you touch them using your left hand. Some of people within the malay community are very sensitive on this as left hand is usually regarded as the "cleansing" hand.

I think eating with hands is something that needs getting used to. Especially since there is an obvious difference between eating etiquette in both cultures. But your insight have shed some light on this particular action that is common yet pretty intriguing. Thanks.

May one should experiment before embracing the idea. And what better way to accept than to do it ourselves?

p/s. Just remember to remind me to wash my hands before I try.

September 26, 2008 at 8:09 AM

Blogger Lyon said...


Yes my mom always tells me off when I eat with only one hand visible at the table! That's actually something very amusing to me because I was never told the reason for it!


As I do not have many close Muslim or Indian friends, I tend to forget that it might be offensive to some of them if I touch them with my left hand. Maybe it would be a good idea for MOE to include lessons on such cultural differences in primary school education.

Even though I can now accept eating with my hand, I still cannot imagine "cleansing" oneself with his hand! And I don't really think I'll try that either even if they tell me that the "cleasing" process is more enjoyable that way!

September 26, 2008 at 10:32 AM

Blogger Tiffany said...


Yes, I agree that MOE should include more lessons on cultural differences so as to inculcate the children with necessary knowledge.

Honestly, coming from a secondary school that had PURELY chinese students, I never knew that Muslim boys had to go for prayers on Fridays. It was only when I went into Junior College and made Muslim friends that I found this out. It could have been my own ignorance but I was quite sure many of my fellow classmates in secondary school didn't know this either!

Talking about eating with hands, food does indeed taste better when eaten with hands. But in some Chinese families, eating with hands can sometimes imply "uncultured-ness" and can be deemed uncouth. Imagine having all the dishes set out on the table and while eating, someone just reaches out to take a slice of fish with his/her bare hands. I doubt anyone else would want to touch that plate of fish. Either that or the person would have been shouted at.

So I guess this boils down to the fact that Malays and Indians usually have their food all in one plate and what they touch is just within their own plate. And I agree with Weiren that the best way to embrace a culture is to immerse yourself in it and try out what they do!

September 26, 2008 at 9:46 PM

Blogger Brad Blackstone said...

Very interesting post on a fairly typical behavior, not just among Indians and Malays but also anyone who has ever eaten a hamburger or other sandwich.

The point that you make here about eating rice and curry or condiments with the hands is key though.

is there any Chinese food that is usually eaten with the hands?

September 27, 2008 at 10:35 AM

Blogger Lyon said...

People who have eaten sandwiches or hamburgers might not have done so with direct contact with the food all the time. For me, I would be holding them with the plastic wrapping most of the time.

For Chinese, the food which would require us to use our hands are dishes like prawns, crabs and chicken wings. But I feel that the context is slightly different from the Indians and Malays mixing rice with condiments using hands. It was more for convenience sake.

September 27, 2008 at 6:13 PM

Blogger Oxy said...

Eating with one's hand without dirtying more than 3 of your fingertips is an art indeed!

Not only do Indians and Malays eat with their hands, the Thais do it too.

My dad, who was a Malaysian, had taught me how to eat with my hands since young (not that I am proficient at it). People who have yet to try eating with hands should really give it a try one day because it can really be quite fun!

September 29, 2008 at 8:37 AM

Blogger Lyon said...


I bet it's not an easy skill to master (:

September 29, 2008 at 9:27 AM


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