Why Do We Stigmatise Eating With Your Hands?

Eating Scene
Esha Dev

Eating with our hands is not a new concept. We can see cutlery within global history as far back as the 1st century Romans having spoons, but what happened before then? Do we expect that the first humans fashioned cutlery out of the tools around them to eat or did they just eat? Esha Dev examines the stigma around using our hands as the tools.

Historically we are faced with situations where bias causes stigma around the way people do things, the way they behave and the way they act. Eating with our hands is no different. In many cultures eating with our hands is seen as the norm, many dishes are simply uneatable unless our hands are used. There has often been a divide on traditionally Western views on table manners compared to non-westernised countries. But should this be the case?

Dealing with unfamiliar foods 

Attitudes towards unfamiliar foods are too often disgust rather than approaching them with an open mind. There is a stigma around foods that don’t smell, taste, or look the same as what people are used to, children who grow up on these ‘unfamiliar’ foods are often left feeling alienated by their peers. 

We should be curious and say, “That sounds good”

Foods that aren’t understood by people are considered ‘strange’ and all the world foods are condensed into one aisle in supermarkets. That’s insufficient to nurture the open-minded conversation about foods we expect to have. There have been many instances where little or no knowledge of how to approach unknown food has led to children feeling ashamed of the foods they bring to school or university, which extends to the workplace, where employees are discouraged from bringing dishes that are considered ‘smelly’.

While it is disguised as being well-meaning, these ‘tips’ and articles speak massively of ethnic prejudice. It quickly forces individuals  to hide and suppress their ‘foreign’ food. This need not continue like this. We should learn to be more accepting of different foods and asking the right questions and with the right tones. We should be curious and say, “That sounds good, but it’s not for me,” rather than, “That sounds gross.”

Etiquette and history

One is expected to sit at the dinner table with their hands thoroughly washed

A lot of the stigma surrounding foods that are meant to be eaten with our hands comes from misconceptions that this practice is unhygienic or lacking in manners. However, there is specific etiquette that counteracts these concerns. One is expected to sit at the dinner table with their hands thoroughly washed.

In many African cultures, you are expected to eat with your right hand and eating with your left hand is considered rude and improper as you tend to deal with less sanitary things with that hand.

Eating food with your hands is a communal experience

You use a base food, such as fufu or bread to scoop out another food, in which case we can see that our cutlery is being replaced by another food. There is also an approved manner to use your hand. You are expected to scoop with a twist of a wrist. Using your index and middle finders you should grab the base food and smooth it with your thumb, you should scoop from your bowl and then push the food into your mouth rather than put your fingers into your mouth.

Eating food with your hands is a communal experience, in fact there are Ayurvedic teachings that state our hands hold a certain amount of power and that we are more in touch with our food that way. So why are we so against this way of eating food?

Food that is meant to be eaten with our hands 

In many cultures, there are dishes that are simply meant to be eaten with our hands. Every culture would have at least one food like this. For example: pizza, burgers (although there is some disagreement here), fries, cookies, brownies, sandwiches and many more. So, how are these foods different to foods that we find in different cultures? 

The tradition of feeding someone with your own hands, the bigger the morsel, the greater the friendship

East African culture has injera which is a flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, and it is made from teff flour. It is eaten primarily in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Sudan. It is a staple food, which can be compared to bread or rice in terms of its popularity. Ethiopians also have a ritual called gursha which is the tradition of feeding someone with your own hands, the bigger the morsel, the greater the friendship.

Nigerian and Ghanian cultures have fufu which is a dough like food that has been made from starchy foods such as cassava, yams, and plantain. It is eaten with stews of meat, fish, and vegetables. Fufu is also an example of a ‘swallow-food’ where one is not meant to chew but to immediately swallow.

Try connecting and eating with your hands!

West African culture has okro and garri which a soupy dish and a bread like food that is made from cassava and can be flavoured differently depending on how long it has been fermented and if there is palm oil in it. It is very similar to fufu, and they can be used interchangeably in some cuisines.

Try something new, experience new flavours and try connecting and eating with your hands!

Esha Dev

Featured image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez via Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.

If you just can’t get enough of Lifestyle, like our Facebook as a reader or contributor.


Leave a Reply