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Eating with your hands is the norm in some countries of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. It might seem strange for westerners who are used to using utensils, but usually once a visitor tries “hand eating” they really enjoy it and say that the food tastes better! To best experience the proper way of eating with your hands in Southeast Asia, there are some simple rules that you should follow. It does take a little getting used to but “when in Rome…” right?
First things first. If you have always used a utensil to eat, even if just a pair of chopsticks, you might have eaten pizza or fried chicken with your hands. But pizza and fried chicken are relatively solid and have bits to grab on to. Eating with your hands in Southeast Asia is a little different. Most dishes involve rice and there are some techniques to master in order to get it all in your mouth and not spill all over the place! If eating with your hands grosses you out, just try and think that everyone is doing it and it might get a little easier.
Every restaurant where it’s a norm to eat with your hands, will have a sink and hopefully some soap situated in the eating area for customers to wash their hands before eating. Nobody wants to get sick just from eating some yummy food! If the place has no sink, there will definitely be a jug of clean water at least to rinse your hands before eating. The sink and the water are heaven sent after you finish eating too!
When eating with your hands, you don’t really use both hands at all. It is best practice to ONLY use your right hand. This is because the left hand is used in the toilet! This might seem difficult at first, to only use one hand but with practice it becomes easier. If you have a large chunk of meat, you can either break off a piece or bite a bit off. Your left hand’s only purpose at the table is to grab the glass of water you might be drinking.
You will not use your entire hand to eat, least of all the palm of your hand. What you are really going to use, are your fingertips, all of them. Most of the dishes that are eaten by hand in South and Southeast Asia will consist mainly of rice and curries, vegetables and sauces. Using your fingertips, mix the rice with the accompaniments in a little section of your plate (or banana leaf) to create little morsels.
In order to not make a mess of rice falling out of your hand when you are about to put it in your mouth, it’s best to use the juicy stuff on the plate to make the rice stick together. Putting together the right size morsel will take some practice but making the rice stick together with the rest of the food will make less of a mess.
Some dishes will have a kind of bread on the side. It might be papadum, naan, rotti or something similar. This really helps because the bread can be used as a makeshift spoon! Using it as a spoon is not the only way to eat bread with South or Southeast Asian food, you can also use it to pinch the little mound of juicy rice and then take it to your mouth.
Once you have the perfect morsel in your fingertips, lean your head in towards the table a little sideways to grab as much as possible. Leaning in is your best bet because even if your morsel is the perfect size, some rice might still fall and better it lands on your plate rather than your lap.
To actually get the food into your mouth, the technique is as follows: Place your thumb behind the morsel of food that is on your fingertips. With your face very close to your hand, push the food into your mouth using your thumb. You do not need to to stick your fingertips inside your mouth but you can sure lick your fingers if the food is yummy. Repeat and do NOT rinse until you are done!