When I ponder the act of eating, the very thing that comes to mind is the sensual experience of smelling, tasting, feeling and savoring the meal before me. Yet, the experience I picture juxtaposed with the act of grabbing metal tools to spear my food and deposit each chunk into my mouth doesn’t quite seem to meld.
For as long as I can remember, food has always been a major part of my life. Having grown up with an Italian grandmother who spent most days preparing elaborate meals so that my family could enjoy a healthful, homemade dinner each night instilled a deep appreciation for eating mindfully amidst the company of friends and family. What I loved most about my grandmother’s meals was the formal informality in which we ate. Everyone was required to sit at the table in order to receive our dinner, but reaching into a bowl of spaghetti, pinching out the first long strand, lining it up over an open mouth from mid-air and sliding it in was, in fact, totally acceptable. We were allowed to break bread with our hands and fish out olives from our bowls of salad with our fingers — everything just tasted better this way. Of course, most of our food was consumed with a fork, knife and spoon, but having the freedom to touch and feel some part of the meal is the reason I continue to love food and eating mindfully to this day.
Luckily I happen to live near New York City where it’s becoming easier to find restaurants that welcome this practice. African, Middle Eastern and Asian (particularly Indian) cuisine is often eaten with the hands and with a very specific etiquette, so it’s helpful to understand formalities before dining at such places.
According to the New York Times: “Etiquette, as a matter of fact, is central to most traditions of hand-to-mouth eating; the artfulness and ritual of the practice is part of what people love about it. Hand-washing often comes first. In Muslim communities, a prayer of thanks comes next. Only then can one reach in — usually with just the right hand — to eat.
And dining with the hands is not necessarily easy: in some regions, including parts of India, it is most polite to use your thumb, pointer and middle finger, and to let only the first two joints of those fingers touch the food.
Details differ from place to place, but often rice or flatbread is used to ferry food to the mouth — think of Indian roti and naan, Ethiopian injera or Middle Eastern pita. Central and Southern Africans pound root vegetables or corn into starchy mashes like fufu or ugali; you’re meant to pull off a bite-size ball and use it as an edible scoop.”
Once the technicalities are learned, the rest just comes naturally. The action of physically connecting with food sends messages to the brain that would otherwise not occur by using a utensil, and you immediately become more mindful of your actions — everything about the experience is heightened and more pleasurable — the smells, the textures and the flavors all come to life. Essentially we’re connecting to an instinctual trait that remains dormant until we awaken it. Only when the mind becomes engaged, can we truly appreciate the meal before us and the love, laughter and passion that surrounds it.