Recently while watching the famous film ‘Chungking Express’ (1994), a particular scene stayed longer in my mind than required . This film is based on Hong Kong’s life and is directed by Wong-kar-wai. That particular scene in the movie showed some immigrant Pakistani men sitting together for their day’s meal in a dimly lit room in Hong Kong . The camera zoomed around not on their faces but on their hands touching the rice/bread and curries (in the background some chattering in Hindi-Urdu). And eventually the camera goes out and shows a Chinese food joint owner telling how uncouth is to eat with your hands when you can eat with chopsticks. I wondered why societies have such fanciful notions of being civilized in a better way by maintaining the distance between ones fingers and food. In the Chinese culture it is considered uncouth or uncivilized if somebody eats with their bare hands. Similarly in Indonesia, it is considered improper if you eat the food with your bare hands (they use spoons), but the Javanese people in Indonesia generally eat with their bare hands, so for them it is quite civilized thing to do. The people in Philippines love eating with their bare hands and it is quite a national trait to be proud of.
The western Europeans find the Chinese style of eating (with the bowl of rice or noodle held right at the corner of one’s mouth, and then eating with slurping sound with the help of two quick-moving chopsticks) messy and disgusting. They always complain that Chinese style of eating makes a lot of noise which is uncouth.
South Asians communities on the other hand, have their own bizarre ways of feeling better cultured or civilized when it comes to eating with one’s bare hands. Traditionally South Asians eat with their bare hands. And the right hand is the eating hand as left hand is considered unclean hand.
But one can find quite a uniform pattern of eating manners when one moves from Far North to Deep South. In the far north of India , large number of people from Haryana, Punjab, Western part of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan take pride in their unique way of eating with their bare hands. The general idea is to avoid touching the curry/soup with your bare fingers. I have seen people eating their Roti (bread) and curry/soup by tearing a part of the Roti and then making a spoon like formation of it, and then lifting the curry with it before putting it into one’s mouth, thereby maximally avoiding the contact of curry/soup with one’s fingers. This also means that the person eating food in this manner does not need to wash hands after eating, and he/she can just finish the dining by just rubbing/clasping his palms a little (to brush off the tiny fragments of bread) and then go on doing other business. And the bread can be broken into pieces using both the hands (including the so called unclean left hand).
And then once we move to central India and its eastern and western parts, like the states of Madhya Pradesh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orisa, Bengal and Assam in the East & Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, people (I call them middle Indians) in general dip their five fingers (right hand) in the curry/soup to eat together with rice or Roti. The fingers are usually licked off while eating anything fluid and soup. The idea is to maximally avoid touching the curry/soup with the back of one’s palm and the curry/soup must not touch your wrist or lower arm. Hand must be washed after dining (and obviously before it).
The Northeastern Indians (i.e people from Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura) traditionally eat their curries and rice with their bare hands. But increasingly because of the influence of Christian missionaries in the region, younger generation has resorted to eating with spoons and forks. But the older folks usually eat with their bare hands even now.
And when one goes to the far south in India, like the states of Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, eating with bare hands becomes a more passionate affair. Normally people eat their curries and rice/breads with their bare hands, and it is quite okay if the curry touches the back of the palm or the lower half of the arm. Slurping the food and licking the curries from the back of one’s palm is considered quite integral to eating with satisfaction and joy. Not only hands but the lower half of the arm needs thorough washing after dining in this manner.
Now coming back to the what people usually think is good or civilized and what is bad or uncouth about each other’s eating habits. The far northerners in India pride themselves by eating the way they do and ridicule people eating in other ways by calling them names like Bihari (person from Bihar) or Madrasi (person from south India). The middle Indians ridicule the southerners for their eating style by calling it messy and unhygienic. The southerners enjoy their style and consider eating with spoons and forks uncultured and western evil influence.
So to sum up, eating with one’s hands does not seem to be an easy riddle to solve if one has to decide which is more civilized – eating with chopsticks, eating with forks or just plain bare hands.