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Art of Eating

EatingThere is no way around it.  Indian food tastes best when eaten with your fingers.  There is a tactile dimension added to the eating process.  Besides, Indian foods are designed to be eaten by hand.  Breads are to be torn and wrapped around foods.  Rice is customarily blended with curries so each mouthful is unique.  If you eat off a banana leaf (still possible in many places) trying to use a knife and fork would shred your " plate ".  Eating with your fingers is a cultural experience everyone should experience while visiting India.

A problem for some

Surprisingly, many Westerners have a problem eating with their fingers.  For some, it's a squeamishness in being that intimate with your food.  For others, it's hygiene.  (Actually, eating with your fingers allows you greater control over cleanliness factors.  You can, and should, wash your hands well before eating.  Get them as clean as you like.  Then try and forget early table training, and recapture some of the early childhood joy of playing with your food.) Others have difficulty with technique, especially when rice is involved.  You can't go back to the" fistful of food " method you perfected when you were two.

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The Technique

The secret to gracefully eating with your fingers is this: " Use your thumb.  " Food, say a small amount of rice, is collected in a small pile on your plate, blended with one or more bits of curry, and then picked up with a twist of the wrist and held on the four fingers of your hand.  The thumb remains free.  Keeping the food level, maneuver your fingers to your mouth until the tips of your fingers are almost, or just, touching your lower lip.  Don't put your fingers into your mouth.  Use your thumb to pop the food inside.  It is a simple technique, and it works.  A meal or two of practicing and you'll be eating like a native.  

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Good Manners

There are conventions of good manners when eating with the fingers, but they do change a bit from area to area.  The most basic is that in the North of India it is polite to dirty only the first two segments of your fingers.  Since Northerners eat a lot of breads and generally have drier curries, this doesn't pose much difficulty.  In the South, where they eat lots more rice, and enjoy very soupy curries, you can get your whole hand into the action.  Try not to get carried away, though.  Having curry juices running down toward the elbow would be considered a bit low class.

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Use your right hand

It is very important to eat with your right hand only.  Your left hand is reserved for other functions (toilet related) and should not handle food, especially other people's food.  Usually, your left hand rests on the table or your lap while you eat.  Though it is acceptable to take a piece of bread, say, in your left hand and tear off pieces with your right, it is better to only use the right hand, pinning the bread with your little finger and tearing with your thumb and forefinger.  You should use your clean left hand to serve yourself (using a utensil) or pass a plate of food.  Don't plunge either hand into food in a communal serving dish.

The question of what a left-handed person should do is a bit complicated.  If it is at all possible, try and eat with your right hand.  If it is too awkward, use the left, but perhaps explain to your dinner companions that you are left handed and cannot eat with your right hand.  (Perhaps someone out there can enlighten us further as to the best solution.)

Finally, there are places in India where eating with your hand is frowned upon - most notably the Indian food buffets at fancy restaurants.  If it's a classy place, and cutlery is provided, you are probably expected to use it.  Look around, and if no one else is digging in with their fingers, you may want to toe the line.

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