Step One: Wash your hands. Thoroughly.
Step Two: Sit down and look at your plate. I have decided to serve you a fairly common Malay dish: nasi ayam, or rice with chicken. Your meal consists of a piece of fried chicken still on the bones, a heap of yellow rice soaked with broth, a few raw vegetables, and a small pool of sambal (or spicy chili sauce). You also happen to have a slice of melon and a glass of soy milk, but I don't think you'll be needing assistance with those.
It all looks delicious, and you can't wait to put it into your mouth!
Step Three: Commit to the fact that you will be putting this food into your mouth with your hands. In the process, it will get all over your fingers and your fingers will get all over it. Please fully accept this. There is no going back now.
Step Four: Look around at the others eating nearby, and realize that eating with your hands does not consist of grabbing handfuls of food and cramming it into your mouth. There is a method here, and when you're good at it, it's not messy at all.
Step Five: Put your glass within reach of your left hand. You will be using your right hand, and only your right hand, to touch your food. Sorry, lefties.
Step Six: Touch that food! Using your thumb and fingertips, push a small amount of the broth-soaked rice to one side of the plate and shape it into a lump. Now form your fingertips into a rough scoop shape and use your thumb to push the lump onto your fingers. The broth should more or less hold the rice together, so that the lump is the consistency of, well, wet rice.
Step Seven: Put the food in your mouth! Raise the scoop to your lips and use the back of your thumb to push the lump off of your fingers and into your mouth. It's okay to let your lips touch your fingers - you don't have to aim blindly or anything.
Keep in mind that since this is your first time, it will probably be a little messy and some rice might fall down. That's okay! Keep trying!
Step Eight: Dig into that chicken. Pinch and tear off a small chunk of the meat from the chicken bones. Now form your rice-and-broth lump against this chunk - you can use its shape to make the lump more stable. Now it's the same deal again: scoop the food onto your fingers, lift to mouth, push in with thumb.
Step Nine: Spice it up! If you feel like using a bit of that sambal there, push some rice or a piece of vegetable into it, then mix it into your next lump. I'd go easy on that stuff if I were you - it's probably hot enough to burn your esophagus off.
Step Ten: Keep going till you're done. Use your left hand to drink from your cup, use your right hand to touch your mouth and anything on your plate, and use all that food to fill up your belly. Don't be shy with that chicken, by the way - chances are it's not a drumstick, and there's usually plenty of meat hidden between the bones.
There you go! You have now successfully eaten a meal in Malaysia, using 100% less the number of utensils than usual!
A few extra points:
- Cooked vegetables accompany most meals. These and any sauces can be mixed in with your rice lumps to help them hold their shape.
- If you ever find yourself eating a meal that involves some sort of flat, flexible bread, like chapatti or naan, you can use this bread as a utensil. Tear off pieces of it - with only your right hand! - and use them to soak up sauce and pinch/scoop up whatever else is on your plate.
- You may find yourself eating a whole or half fish at some point.
There are some places in America where this is not really big news, but there are a lot of people in other places who would never even consider eating something that still has its scales, fins, head, tail, and bones. These are the people that I would ask to take a quick look at what science has to say on the matter:
It took me months to get used to eating with my hands when I first started, but now I actually prefer it. You have a chance to get to know your food before it goes in your mouth, and you can really customize the makeup of each mouthful. It could be that I've simply come to associate this eating method with some really darn good food over the past couple of years, but I like to think that the method itself is about as basic, natural, and intuitive as it gets.
Let me know how it goes when you try it!