Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eating With Your Hands 101

There is a lot of hand-vs-food-phobia among Americans, and although I understand why, I'm of the opinion that it is totally unfounded.  Therefore, I've decided to draw on my experiences in Kenya and Malaysia and provide this simple introductory guide to eating with one's hands.  Don't worry, guys, people do this all over the world!  They're not dead yet!

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:
To eat your whole or half fish, be careful when pinching the meat off - try gently scraping and lifting it off from the center outward, so that it comes free without taking a lot of bones with it.  Make a small pile of the bones that do come off on the edge of the plate.  When you're finished with one side, remember to flip it over and get the other half.

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!


  1. Ok, a coupla questions - Suppose you DO get a drumstick - can you bite a chunk off and return the rest to the plate (as, presumably with the melon), or do you have to pinch off a bite-size piece? And I didn't notice any napkins. Got no problems with the obvious solution, but would want to have it explicitly okayed before practicing. And I fully agree about the whole fish - looks vile to the naive (me, still), but rightly prepared, tastes amazing. Even with a fork.

  2. So you're asking about picking up and biting the meat off the chicken bones, and about licking your fingers, right?

    Okay, so I've consulted with a native source about your questions, and apparently these are things that are considered a little bit tacky. You can do them at home, if things are really informal, but not in public. Probably a bit like picking your teeth with your fingers or something.

    With your hands, you generally just let your right hand get as messy as it's gonna get while you're eating. Then when you're done, you go to the small sink that every single eating place has and wash up.

  3. Very good reading! I wonder how our eating habits would change if we had to eat with only our right hands. Would we eat less, would meals take longer? Would pasta with a rich sauce still be as delicious...

  4. I'm betting it would be even more delicious. Even more sensory contact with your food while you're eating it = even more sensory appreciation!

  5. Since you've been gone, I had the opportunity to eat a garbage plate with my bare hands. I hadn't read your article previously, but I noticed that I fell into the "right-hand-only" style pretty naturally. The biggest obstacle was coming to peace with the fact that I was going to be using only my hands.

  6. Haha my biggest obstacle would have been coming to peace with the fact that I was ingesting a garbage plate. Where were the cheap plastic forks?

  7. Nice information about eating hands