Eating with your hands

It was 2am at Big Poppas on Oxford Street; hip hop, fresh figs and hand-cut pappardelle.

We were curled around a candlelit table in the corner, when in walked a strange new friend of a friend, Chris. His white linen shirt was open to his naval, revealing thirteen ochre-cigarette-like burns in a slanting line across his chest. They were the result of the Amazonian ‘Kambo’ cleanse he had recently undertaken, a shamanic ritual during which he was injected with frog poison and purged of all of his bodily wastes. Chris believed that, like an onion, his spiritual layers had peeled away and only his enlightened core remained.

When the waiter served Chris his ricotta gnocchi with king brown mushrooms, brown butter, tarragon, amaretti and pecorino cheese, he got stuck right in there with his fingers. In his Californian drawl Chris insisted that we had to taste this gnocchi too. Forget the forks, get your paws in there stat. It was slimy… yet satisfying.

Think about it - you pick up a slice of oozing pizza, negotiate with the cheese, and then fold it into your mouth (If the cheese doesn’t stretch then you have the wrong kind of pizza). Almost all of our favourite foods demand that we interact with them sans knife and fork, and there is a real childlike enjoyment in the mess-making. This hand-to-mouth interplay creates an awareness of what, and of how much, we are eating. With this awareness comes an appreciation of whole experience - the squish, the smell, the deliciousness of your food.

In a culture obsessed with good food and good bacteria, is this a sensory experience we are missing out on?

The seashells and bones used in Ancient times evolved into the shovels, pitchforks and carved wooden spoons of medieval Europe. Cutlery then graduated to the royal courts of 13th century England and finally evolved into the fancy 18:10 stainless metalwork we use today. But in other corners of the world - across India, Africa and the Middle East, millions of people are still eating everyday with their hands.

After meeting Chris and his gnocchi I was inspired to find out more about the benefits of eating with our hands. As it turns out, there are a few good scientific reasons that we should be forsaking refinement:

  • Good Digestion - The digestive enzymes in our gut are stimulated by our finger tips, before our food reaches the lips. The nerve endings in our hands actually can ‘read’ our food - gauging its temperature, its texture and its spiciness. The nerves then signal to our brain that we are about to eat and get the digestive juices flowing. There are also beneficial microbiota living on our fingers and palms which help to promote good digestion. Why take probiotics in a capsule when we can lick them straight off our hands?
  • Good Hygiene - If you make a habit of eating with your hands, you are more likely to want to wash off the dirt before a meal. Mum would be proud.
  • Mindful Eating - During a one week experiment I tried eating every single meal with my hands, and it forced me to create new pairings of foods which can ‘scoop’. Yoghurt scooped with nectarines, poached egg scooped with asparagus, spaghetti scooped with silver beet leaves. It made for delicious combinations of both texture and flavour. Another benefit of eating with your hands is that your increased physical awareness makes you less susceptible to overeating. You aren’t going to tap away at your laptop if your fingers are covered in curry and rice. It forces you to sit and appreciate what you are eating, and that eating is an activity unto its own. 
  • Save dollars, Save the planet - Unless you are with dining out with the bearded-international-business-hippy Chris you might feel a bit shy about sitting down to a meal at a nice restaurant and eating it with your hands… So save on the silverware and eat at home or at food markets where eating with your hands is cool. If you are in Sydney you can get your fingers all sticky and look super hip doing it at these street food markets, this awesome inner-city bar, and this restaurant.  If you are buying take-away food politely decline the plastic-wrapped knife, fork and serviette packages… Actually... Hold on to the serviette and wipe away the mess with the added bonus of reducing waste.

By now you have realised you fall in to one of two categories of people. The justified grub (ate with your hands already but didn't know it was cool now) or, The ambidextrous adventurer. 

bon apetit!

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