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Indian traditional way of eating food with hands / fingers

Indian traditional way of eating food / meals sitting on the floor and eating food with fingers, I mean, hands. This may sound unclean / unhygienic for non-Indians but for Indians there is some in-depth meaning in this traditional style of eating.

On a weekend, we (I and my husband) went to Himalayan Restaurant, Glenview, IL during our stay in Chicago, IL. This is a famous Indian Restaurant that serves delicious Indian and Nepali cuisine. We were enjoying typical Indian cuisine and relishing the food eating the typical Indian way with hands / fingers. We were so engrossed in eating that we completely forgot the surroundings and started licking hands and fingers like typical Indians do when they relish the food. Of course, with no sound while licking fingers.

In the restaurant, there were Americans and people from other nations too. They were so cultured that neither did they observe the way we were eating food nor did they put a perplexed face on giving a look at us. They were just their own way enjoying Indian / Nepali foods.

After we completed our meal, then it suddenly struck to my mind that we were in a foreign land that too Western land and people here are not used to such a style of eating. I felt a bit embarrassed initially but while moving out of the restaurant, I felt proud when I saw a couple of non-Indians too relishing Indian food - the Indian way i.e eating with hands / fingers.

I couldn't stop myself appreciating them (though not openly) as they took the Indian style of eating in a positive way. I think, they might have had a thorough knowledge on the advantages of the ancient Indian way of eating food.

There was a flash of thought in my mind on the rationale behind the traditional Indian way of eating food. Let's look into it.

Eating food sitting on the floor
A healthy ancient Indian practice of eating food is sitting on the floor and eating. Food is served in eco-friendly plantain leaves placed on the floor. In Hinduism, food is considered sacred and is considered as Goddess Annapoorna Devi who is believed to have served food to Lord Vishwanath (i.e Lord Shiva) of Kasi (the present Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh).
When you sit on the floor and eat food, you need to remove your shoes and socks / sandals. This is a typical Indian style of eating food. By doing so, you are restricting the spread of germs / pollutants which otherwise might have accumulated on your shoes / socks.
Sitting on the floor and eating food is a mark of respect to Annapoorna Devi - the Hindu goddess of food. It signifies humbleness and devotion to Goddess. Scientifically, human beings who are living beings cannot survive without food. So, Indians respect the food they get to eat for the day.

Maintaining etiquette while eating
When a traditional meal is served on plantain leaf, you need to wait till all the items are served. Picking up of items while these are being served and put in your mouth is not a good manner. When there are elders sitting in the row, you are supposed to wait for the elders to start eating food. This is a gesture of respecting the elders.

Similarly after you finish eating, you are not supposed to get up and go for washing your hands but it is a mannerism to wait till the elders i.e the older ones finish. You have to get only after the elders get up and go for washing their hands.

A good gesture while having meal is not to leave any of the food items in the leaf. Food which is grown by the farmers, should not be wasted. So, get food items served only if you are sure to eat those, lest you can politely reject. Leaving food items (half eaten or not eating at all) in the leaf is not a good manner. But it is treated as a sign of disrespecting food.

Indian way of eating food with fingers / hands
An ancient eating habit of Indians is eating food with fingers / hands. Basically Indians are rice eaters, particularly South Indians while in the North people mostly eat Indian breads i.e chapati made of wheat. Food is served hot and also relished hot. So, one of the advantages of eating with fingers is that when you initially touch the food with hands, you can easily make out whether the hot food is bearable or not. This avoids burning your mouth / tongue.

The very sight of food and its touch triggers the secretion of digestive juices and the digestive system gets ready for its proper functioning.

Indian foods are enjoyed the most when you eat with hands / fingers. It gives you a satisfied feeling.

So also, licking of fingers after a sumptuous meal is a sign of satisfaction and it indicates how much you relished the food. But lifting up the plate / bowl and licking it is not considered a bad sign.

In Hindu religion, it is inappropriate to eat food with left hand as this is used for the other purpose i.e. cleaning the private parts. A majority of Indians follow the age old practice of using water for cleaning the private parts after defecation. Indians are not much used to the use of toilet tissues. Hence, use of left hand is restricted for the purpose and is not used for other good activities. Basically, Indians use their right hand for touching food, serving food and for eating. However, when you eat and simultaneously serve food, then you are not supposed to touch the food to be served, with your right hand as you are still eating with the hand.

However, washing hands before taking meals is a must from hygienic point of view.

Disposing of leftovers
The age old practice of disposal of leftovers is done in an eco-friendly manner. The plantain leaves along with the leftover foods, if any are rolled up and disposed in the backyard. This serves as a food to many animals / living creatures. Animals feed on the disposed items. If it not fed by the animals, it mixes up with the soil and replenishes the soil with nutrients.

After this flash of thought, I thanked the Westerners (of course in my thoughts) who gave me the opportunity to get to know more about the traditional way of eating food. However, India being a vast country with varied culture, the way of eating style differs from region to region.

Photo Courtesy: All the above pictures are taken from Google Images.