There are few things in life I enjoy as much as preparing meals with my hands… the freshness of a ripe and cool mango in my hand as I peel it and feel the juice dripping down; the texture of the meat, vegetables and spices being squished between my fingers as I prepare meatballs; the feeling of the lettuce being massaged by the tips of my fingers as they slide in the oily texture of the dressing; the dough being kneaded by the palms of my hands.
Eating with my hands is of course the great pleasure that follows – grabbing the rice between my fingers, becoming acquainted with the texture and temperature of the food, dunking my “pan dulce” in hot chocolate or cookies in a cup of tea and rescuing bits of it that have fallen in the cup with my fingers.I was born and raised in a culture in which meals are traditionally eaten without cutlery – our fingers and tortillas are all that’s needed. We are experts in “finger foods” of all kinds, from sopes and tacos to tamales and tortas.
Still, early in life I was instructed in “good manners” and “fine dining”, and the dangers of being judged as “uncultured” if I did not use the spoon, fork and knife correctly. I learned the “correct” placement of the different sizes and types of forks, knifes and spoons, and how to not “make a mess” when eating in front of other people. Dunking bread in my milk was forbidden in public. When going to friends’ houses or restaurants, I had to “eat properly”. So, for most of my life, the pleasure of eating with my hands was limited to family meals at home.
In recent years, after immersing myself in the practice of mindful eating, I started to experiment with eating with my hands in social gatherings and restaurants. At first, I was of course quite self-conscious, but as I practiced staying with sensations there was just pure, unadulterated joy. My experiences of satiety and satisfaction were radically transformed. The Mexican culinary tradition is not the only one to promote eating with our hands. In the Indian culture, eating with the hands evokes emotion and passion. According to Vedic wisdom, the hands are the most precious organs of action, with every finger an extension of each of the five elements. The nerve endings on our fingertips signal that we are about to eat, stimulating digestion. By eating with our fingers, we become more aware of the taste, textures and aromas. It is also common in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.
I find it interesting that eating with the hands is more common (at least in Mexico) among lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Sadly, it has become associated with poverty and lack of education. The use of utensils is interpreted as something “refined” and “proper”, and through aspiring to be more highly educated and “cultured” we have lost something profoundly sensual and joyful that allows us to cultivate a deeper connection in each meal.
When was the last time you ate with your hands? How might experimenting with this change your experience, and allow you to cultivate a different nourishing connection with your food?
Lilia Graue, Mexico City