Exploring the history, stigma, and technique of eating with your hands

Hosted by

Injera, a sour, fermented bread, acts as a utensil in Ethiopian cuisine where eating with your hands is a common practice. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Eating with your hands isn't exclusive to any particular culture. It's a common practice in Ethiopia, Oaxaca, many South Asian countries, and other regions throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Yet somewhere along the way, it was deemed uncivilized in the West. 

Writer Serena Alagappan remembers learning how to properly eat with her hands alongside being taught to use a fork and knife. She says one of the common misconceptions about eating with your hands is that there is no technique to it. Those skills vary widely depending on region, household and type of food. 

You might eat with the tips of your fingers or clump your fingers together and push forward with your thumb. Other variations eschew using a pinky finger or use a whole palm for runny dishes. 

Until the last few hundred years, most of the world ate with their hands. The shift to utensils didn't happen until individual place settings were introduced, in the 1800s. While knives existed for carving meat and spoons for ladling communal soups, individualized meals prompted the use of forks — and not only in the West. You see this shift with the introduction of disposable chopsticks in Japan in 1878. The fact that much of the flatware was made from precious metals raises issues of class, status, and privilege, Alagappan explains.

In her research, she encountered a range of experiences. Some people didn't face any stigmatization for eating with their hands. Others felt it acutely. She delves into the shared experience of eating with your hands in her story for The Juggernaut.