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Let’s embrace eating with our hands again

Europeans used to eat with their hands — then they went in for all kinds of table utensils. Let’s get back to our fingers

Eating with hands has been integral to many food cultures.
Eating with hands has been integral to many food cultures. (Vivaan Rupani, Pexels)

Culture wars have been waged over very serious issues, but roughly around the year 1000, much fulmination erupted over the fork. Until then, respectable Western Europeans ate with their hands. They were scandalised when Byzantine princesses who married into the ruling clans of the Holy Roman Empire and the Venetian Republic introduced the use of little golden prongs to pick up food sliced by servants. Monks and prelates condemned the practice as effeminate and damned the women to hell. It would take more than 500 years before the French made forking at the dinner table acceptable practice.

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It took a couple more centuries for cutlery to get completely out of hand, so to speak. 

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the rising middle classes in industrializing Europe and the Americas adopted whatever silverware they felt enhanced their upward mobility. We not only got dinner forks but dinner spoons and knives; a trio of the same for dessert; fish forks and fish knives; separate spoons for tea, coffee and sugar; carving knives and forks; salad forks; soda spoons; cake forks. And if you were extravagant, shiny cake spatulas. I’ve probably forgotten something. The rest of the world was infected by the ethos as result of Western dominance and colonialism; status anxiety contributed, too. This diversity of instruments tortures diners to this day, confusing us at fancy suppers. So much specialization just to avoid sullying our hands.

I say, we should no longer be fidgety about picking up food with our fingers. The pandemic made everyone reach for antibacterial wipes, gels and liquids. But that nervousness has abated as our confidence in communal immunity has increased. Let’s start eating with our hands again. 

My colleague Bobby Ghosh’s recent piece on a new Filipino restaurant in New York City reminded me that high-end restaurant food need not require silverware. At Naks, the $135 ( 11,257.97 approx) prix fixe dinner of 18 dishes spread across 12 courses is mostly eaten kamayan style—that is, by hand. There is etiquette involved: You don’t just grab food and stuff your face; that would be going medieval on your meal. Your fingers are key—think of them as chopsticks but with a lot more dexterity. You form rice and food into manageable bites that can be popped in your mouth without having to insert your digits past your lips. Try not to use your palms. Finger bowls make sense here. Or, as provided by Naks, wash basins.

I grew up in the Philippines eating in three different styles: kamayan for the food of the archipelago; forks, spoons and knives for western-style fare; and chopsticks for the cooking of my ethnic Chinese family. The last is the most efficient; but the first is the most satisfying because tactility adds a sensual dimension to enjoyment: Say, picking up lechon crackling to feel its crispness or pressing pork fat and a touch of salt or garlic-laced vinegar into an unctuous ball of rice. The aromas mix and linger on your fingers through the meal, like a savoury perfume.

Cultures that prefer hands over utensils specify the use of one rather than both at the table to pick up food. It is also practical to keep one hand free from food so you can move dishes around or grab a drink. Depending on cuisine, you can roll or scoop up food with rice, roti, injera, bread or just pick up a morsel of protein directly. It’s also become a way to express identity, at least in the Philippines. In the 1970s, a chain of restaurants called Kamayan helped mainstream the indigenous approach to dining. The most common words for fork, spoon and knife—tinidor, kutsara and kutsilyo—derive from Spanish, the language of the country’s colonial rulers from the 16th century to the end of the 19th. 

I’m not suggesting you should start dipping fingers into beef bourguignon or spaghetti. Certain dishes evolved to be eaten with utensils. What I’d like to see is more openness among restaurants and diners to this fundamental way of eating: No more looking askance at fingers doing the work of forks.

Western dining—in spite of the multiplicity of cutlery—never completely threw up its hands. Some things have always been easier to eat with  hands: roast fowl, for example, or the meat closest to the bone of say a pork chop, and have been given a polite pass. Endive can be used as a natural and edible spoon for a host of chopped or macerated food. While many Westerners consume sushi with chopsticks, the mounds of rice-and-fish are classified as nigiri by the Japanese, that is, finger food. Eating with your hands is primal and yet provides sophisticated gustatory pleasure. Indeed, a fork with its tines is simply a representation of the human hand.

I’ll end with my stand on a controversial issue, though perhaps not one to fight a culture war over. Italians and some Americans eat pizza with knives and forks. Use your hands, I say.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Howard Chua-Eoan is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business. 

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