It is a well-known fact that Indian food is consumed using the fingers in the traditional method and this has been the practice in India for centuries. In the olden days, food was served on banana leaves, peope sat on the floor, and ate with their fingers – not the entire palm, but the fingers close together to form a sort of “cup” like motion to pick up each morsel of food.
Where did this concept really come from and is there any value to it or just a tradition passed down from generation to generation?
It is believed that eating with the fingers goes back to Vedic times and is actually noted in the Ayurvedic texts. The concept was probably taken from the notion of the “mudras” which has it’s own value during meditation, kirtan, and yoga. Ayurveda states that each cell in our body consists of the five elements – earth, fire, water, air, space and the each finger is an extension of the elements, specifically:
Index finger (air/vayu)
Middle finger (space/akash)
Ring finger (earth/prithvi)
Little finger (water/jala)
On one level, all five fingers come together while picking up the food morsel and in this contact, the combination of all the five elements form a connection with the Universe/cosmos and energize the food (removing the negative vibes).
On another level, the contact of all five fingers to the food sends a signal to the brain to activate the digestive Agni and the juices, so that we can experience all the senses taste, smell, sight which enhances our activity of eating. In Ayurveda balanced diet does not come just from nutrition but also from the senses and sattvic energies. Eating is no longer an activity but becomes a more sacred sensual process, similar to the idea of saying thanks or receiving blessings prior to ingesting the food. This increases joy and fulfillment during consumption of each bite, thereby feeding both body and spirit.
What value is gained in eating in this way, with our fingers?
It improves digestion – as your fingers come in contact with food, the nerve endings send impulses to the brain that we are about to eat. This is passed on by the brain to the stomach, which activates Agni and the digestive juices start flowing in preparation for digestion. In addition, the healthy bacteria from our hands, boosts our overall immunity and protects us from external bacteria.
Protects the tongue from getting scalded– By touching the food with the fingers, we are able to assess the temperature of the food item before we put it in our mouth and prevents scalding which is not always possible while using cutlery.
Mindfulness and Calm - Eating with the hands causes one to be completely in the moment. This allows one to become mindful and in this state, one not only enjoys the food, is better fulfilled, but also will eat only as much is needed and not over-eat. Also, by eating mindfully, it brings in focus to this one act, which in turns calms the mind and allows you to enjoy the meal.