How the West Deemed Eating With Your Hands “Uncivilized”

And why the practice persisted in South Asia anyway.

Serena Alagappan

November 4, 2022

How the West Deemed Eating With Your Hands “Uncivilized”
Traditional Sadhya meal served in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I love the crunch of urad dal, chana dal, and mustard seeds popped in hot oil, then pushed forward by my thumb. I love when grains of rice, made yellow with turmeric and tangy with lemon juice, move from my fingers to my tongue. I notice the turmeric dyeing the skin around my nails. I savor the sambar, how the tips of my fingers are pruned by the time dinner comes to a close. The sound of the appalam cracking in my hand reminds me of the same crunch in my grandparents’ home.  

Eating with fingers is not exclusive to South Asia. It is common to eat with one’s hand in Ethiopian cuisine, Oaxacan cuisine, and many other regions of the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Yet, for years, many in the West viewed it as “uncivilized,” “unhygienic,” and even “cannibal.” Today, some still do. But recent scientific research shows that eating with our hands can not only make food taste better but also improve the entire sensory experience. For most of human history, everyone ate with their hands. So why did eating with your hands persist in South Asia, as other parts of the world adopted utensils?