As infants and children, the sense of touch is one of the most powerful. Everything goes in our mouth via our fingers at this early age. Tactile learning is one of the four main learning styles. Think about it: how long do children eat with their fingers? How intently do they resist the training early on to use modern utensils?
Face it, it's a natural urge to use our fingers to do things, even to eat as adults. But in this so-called civilized culture, it's not as readily acceptable even though "finger food" recipes are plentiful as are eating gourmet hors d'oeuvres and elegant canapes at fancy parties or chips and dips and bread at restaurants.
How often do you sneak a snack in your car for lunch or before or after work to stave the munchies until a table meal? Bet you don't use formal utensils or even plastic ware while driving. Of course not; hands and fingers are the most appropriate way to hang on to a cheeseburger and fries, burrito, hot dog or donut.
Who are you kidding? We are programmed to finger-eat.
Still, the thought of adults eating with their fingers at a table with others is so uncouth. Or is it?
"It's a good concept, but are people ready for it?" said Joey Yang of Hmong Café. The Hmong people, residing mainly in China, but also in a smaller way in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, find it natural to eat with their hands.
"Growing up," and even today, as he explained, "eating is a community activity, especially with the family. We all sit around a big table and we just naturally eat with our hands. For example, a big bowl of sticky rice would be placed on the table and we would grab it with our hands to eat. It's a matter of 'sharing' in our culture. People use fingers as utensils."
Some people just are not ready for this primitive dining style. Can't we just wash our hands thoroughly just as we wash our utensils? The practice of eating with the hands is more American than many wish to admit, but for the Asian population, it comes naturally. Yang says the Asian Short Ribs on his menu at Hmong Café are meant to be eaten with the fingers, as is the Papaya Salad.
What about Egg Rolls? Spring Rolls? Lettuce wraps?
Some cultures even sit on the floor around a short, squatty table for dining with fingers. Remember the Mongolian restaurant scene in Along Came Polly with Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston? Polly is eating with her fingers as Reuben is not only appalled but having a meltdown from the spiciness of the dish.
Zahidah Hyman, chef at KîO Restaurant in Brookside, who is originally from Cambodia, said, "Yes, eating with your fingers is very common in my culture, but it is all in how you were raised, how you were brought up in your country." Fresh Spring Rolls on her menu at KîO are a natural finger food item.
During the Middle Ages, only the wealthy used utensils, mainly because it was deemed impressive to use spoons or knives crafted out of rare stones and metals. By 1364, during the reign of Charles V of France, forks were listed in his inventory of plate, but it is specified that they are only to be used when eating foods that might otherwise stain the fingers. It wasn't until the mid-18th century throughout Europe and the 19th century in the United States that the fork has achieved the form it has now and became popularized for use.
Eating in traditional Indian style is with the fingers while sitting on the floor. For the Indian people, the art of eating centers around taking in the most flavor of the foods and enjoying the various textures at work. Eating with the fingers allows the blending of foods, which continually enhances the taste.
Indian foods, such as Naan or Roti, types of flat breads, are naturally eaten with fingers. Typically, the bread is broken and dipped in the many condiments provided at table then eaten. It is to be noted, though, that Indians eat with the right hand only, for the left hand is considered unclean; however, passing or serving food is with the left hand.
A Java, Indonesia native, Ervintha Soemntri, owner of Bali Fusion Café, said, "Growing up, our hands were our utensils. Before we were colonized by the Dutch, which began in 1596, people at with their hands, except the soup." She mused that it is naturally more convenient and people were simply used to it. It is what they naturally did.
Even today, she added, restaurant in Indonesia will provide a bowl of tap water at each table to wash the fingers, and maybe a slice of lemon will be provided to eliminate any residue oils or smells on the fingers. When utensils are used, forks and spoons are used, no knives. Spoons serve as the cutting utensil.
For the Indian people, eating with the fingers has been raised to a philosophical pursuit. It's deemed a sensual activity, this eating with the hands. Elevated to this level, one should be able to fully enjoy the art of eating incorporating all the senses--taste, smell, sight, and touch.
Admit it, as Americans, we eat with our fingers more than we like to think we do. Wash your hands and let go of the inhibitions. It's liberating, and more than that, it's easier. And, as humans, there's a feeling of satisfaction built into us by nature when eating with bare hands.
Share this article: