Monday, May 8, 2017

Sri Lankan Hand Jobs - Reasons Why You Should Eat With Your Hands

One of the mainstay Sri Lankan customs is the gentle art of eating with your hand. If you want to eat like a local then this is something you'll want to put into practice. Eating by hand is a custom in many areas of the world, including parts of Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East. I've seen a rough estimate suggesting that between one and two billion people worldwide eat primarily with their hands. This might come as a surprise to those who have never come across this custom and/or are conditioned to eat with cutlery, such as spoons, knives and forks or even chopsticks.

My first introduction to the "Sri Lankan hand job" was on a visit to my friend Chathurika's home. In fact, my reaction to the sight that greeted me in her kitchen was somewhat hilarious as I caught her being hand fed by her mother.  Given that Chathurika was well-past her teenage years, I was gobsmacked by the sight of (1) a grown woman being fed her mother and (2) the fact she was being fed by hand. I think my mouth dropped open and stayed open catching flies until they both realized I wasn't actively participating in their banter. I genuinely thought it was really sweet they had such a close relationship, but seeing it for the first time was a bit of a shock as it was so far removed from what I was used to.

Since that time I've become much more accustomed to seeing people eating with their hands, as well as eating by my own hand. Admittedly, it did take me awhile to get the hang of it and I will say I'm still probably not as smooth doing it as a local.


Etiquette


There is a gentle art to the "Sri Lankan hand job" or eating by hand. Generally speaking, if you're eating rice and curry, you use your fingers to mix the rice with a bit of the curries. After separating out a mouth-sized portion, you then mix, squeeze and roll it gently into a ball shape with your fingers. Once it's firmly shaped, you then place that ball into your mouth using your thumb as a lever. After that, repeat the same.

I find the guidelines set out below useful when adopting the custom of eating by hand. It may save you from embarrassing faux pas, such as eating with the wrong hand or licking inappropriately. Essentially the guidelines form part of what you might term the proper dining etiquette for eating with your hands:
  • Wash your hands before and after the meal (usually at the sink, unless a wash bowl has been provided)
  • Only use your right hand
  • Only use your forefingers (up to the second joint) to handle the food, and not your whole hand
  • Eat from the lower right-hand area of your plate bringing different portions of the dishes and making a ball of food
  • Never lick your fingers at the end of the meal (i.e. this is not a finger-lickin' good opportunity, though I have seen it happen on occasion, but it's not considered the done thing)

As expats or foreigners in Sri Lanka there is no expectation that we eat with our hands to follow the local custom. But, it's definitely seen favorably if we do eat by hand. It's a form of acceptance of the local culture and customs. Most places, particularly those for tourists, will have cutlery available for use. But if you're in a rural setting, where cutlery may not be laid out, you can always ask them if they can give you a spoon by saying "haendhak denne puluwandha?".



Health Benefits


When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, I wasn't overly keen on eating with my hands as a full time thing. Sure, I had traveled to different parts of the world whore I had the opportunity to eat with my hands, but it was an optional fun thing and something I didn't have to do frequently. Having been conditioned from an early age that I was to use cutlery, it's somewhat ingrained into me as a habit. And then there's also the idea of cleanliness, but we'll address that a little later on. 

I've also had my fair share of embarrassing moments when it comes to eating by hand - from having no technique to burning my fingers to using both hands instead of just the right one, and even licking all my fingers at the end of the meal. But I've since learned some skills and it's definitely much better now...

As the years in Sri Lanka have ticked over I've been curious as to why so many people around the globe, and more importantly the people living on this island, choose to eat with their hands. I've heard locals say they can't imagine eating rice and curry or specific foods with a fork and spoon. And one other friend of mine went so far as to declare that using cutlery made him feel colonized.

In doing a little research I discovered there are real health benefits attributed to eating by hand:

  • Improving digestion - apparently there is bacteria, known as normal flora, on our fingers and palm of our hands that protects us from damaging microbes in the environment. When we eat with our hands we naturally ingest this bacteria, which is said to be beneficial for promoting healthy digestion in the gut. Likewise, handling food with our fingers aids the release of digestive juices into the food. 
  • Balancing vital energies (elements)  - the actions involved in eating by hand are derived from ancient Indian times and have been linked to mudras used in yoga, meditation and dance. Each of our fingers represent one of the five elements (earth, air, water, fire and heaven) so when you eat by hand it effectively reduces imbalances in these elements which can help prevent diseases. It's also believed that when the five elements are activated, it energizes the food (this is referred to as prana in Ayurveda or chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine) and thus reduces negativity making it fit for consumption.
  • Reducing blood sugar imbalances - when you eat by hand the process of eating slows down. By comparison, it is easier to eat quickly when using cutlery. It is believed there is a correlation between fast eating and blood sugar imbalances, therefore eating with your hands is seen as beneficial to your health because you eat slow.
  • Promoting mindfulness while eating - more attention is naturally given when you eat by hand, which lends itself to more awareness of what and how much food you are consuming. This can be very beneficial in terms of managing your weight - clinical studies have shown that eating by hand can be helpful in addressing binge eating or overeating. Mindful eating is also said to improve the absorption of nutrients from the food we consume and enhances digestion which can lead to better overall health.
  • Engaging and satisfying all the senses - when you eat by hand touch plays a huge part of the dining experience. The nerve endings in your fingers can gauge the texture and temperature of the food. And through this process the brain can signal the stomach that food is about to be consumed so the stomach can activate the appropriate digestive juices to aid digestion.


Local Experience


Some of my local friends offered their perspective on eating with their hands. Most had been raised from young being hand fed by their mothers. A few actually admitted they hated eating with their hands as children, and their mothers hand fed them till they were at least 18 years of age. Can you imagine your own mother hand feeding you till that age? Well, it seems to be the norm in Sri Lanka and there is a local belief that there is some special sort of alchemy when a mother hand feeds her children. Whether this is true or not,it certainly gives more weight to the notion of a mother's love.

For most of us expats, it's highly unlikely and closer to unheard of for our mothers to (1) hand feed us, and (2) continue to hand feed till we're 18 years of age. I asked my mother whether she would consider hand feeding me up to that age, and her response was "I don't think so. I'd make you a home-cooked meal but you'd have to eat it yourself". I wasn't surprised by her response because we don't have that kind of custom of eating with our hands nor hand feeding. I think I had already started feeding myself when I was about three years of age.

If I'm honest, I probably would have enjoyed being hand fed and having that kind of connection with my mother, though I wouldn't want to be nagged about eating which is also common among Sri Lankan mothers and their children.

I recently attended a party to celebrate my friend Maheshini's mother' birthday. Lots of aunties, uncles, cousins and friends were in attendance. One particular cousin, a recent newlywed, attended with her new husband and they found themselves at the center of attention. This was because she fed her husband by hand throughout the meal. For me it was definitely an unique sight to see in public, but the funny thing was, all the aunties and uncles were beside themselves. Obviously the newlyweds were in the honeymoon phase, but I also think they were radiating harmony and respect to be willing to do that in public. And maybe the aunties and uncles were a little envious of that.

One of my local friends, Priyantha who lives in a small village up in the hill country mentioned that it's customary to use one's hand when preparing a sambol or salad as there's a belief that it tastes better when mixed and massaged with one's fingers. In many households across Sri Lanka you will often find pol sambol or gotukola sambol and other such dishes mixed by hand.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of good reasons to be eating with our hands. Aside from the health benefits and the Sri Lankan experience, there are many foods that naturally taste better when eaten by hand. I'm thinking pizza, burgers, french fries, sandwiches, burritos, tacos, quesadillas, dim sum, dosas, chapatis, idli, rice and curry and more.

So go forth and conquer the gentle art of eating with your hands - it's good for you!




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