How I became a happy hand-eater

by Marlies Dekkers
I’ve always loved to eat with my hands, but it sometimes made me feel like a culinary barbarian. Until I visited India…

I grew up in a working class environment in the South of Holland where eating with your hands was not a shame. It was even stimulated! “Waste not, want not,” my grandmother used to say approvingly as she watched me wipe my plate clean. I had my own theory: There’s a reason food is called fingerlicking good! Everthing just tasted better when I ate with my hands.

And so I kept doing it. I left the small town I grew up in, went to art school and launched my own company. I started having business dinners in fancy restaurants, and even there I would eat with my hands. Yes, people stared, but the food was so gorgeous, and what better way to show your appreciation? That’s how I tried to explain it to my daughter Zilver who had developed a habit of watching me in dismay. “Show appreciation? All you’re showing is that you’re a barbarian!” she would reply while primly picking at a salad with her fork.

I knew that in India it was acceptable to use pieces of bread to gather food and sop up gravies and curries. I had watched people do with much skill in Indian restaurants. But when I finally visited India, I saw that some people eat everything with their hands; rice, meat, yes even curries! Especially in the South. I can’t tell you how liberating it was to be able to plunge my hand into the pile of rice and fish curry without being stared at.

The thing is, this type of hand-eating was from barbarian. Food wasn’t merely grabbed, but delicately touched and shaped into perfect bite-sized balls. A friend explained that it all goes back to Indian mothers lovingly feeding their babies by hand. And there are definitely some rules! You should only use the tip of your fingers, and it is considered ill mannered to let your food stain the outside of your fingers or palm. And of course washing your hands before and after is a big must.

I felt I had come home. I was finally amongst people that, like me, believe that eating is a very sensual thing and should be enjoyed with as many senses as possible – tasting, smelling, looking and touching. Now I just need to find a country where plate-licking is de rigeur

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