Ishay Govender-Ypma considers the case for eating with one’s hands.
As a young child, my first experience of eating solids involved having my mother feed me; not with a spoon, but with her right hand.
While around the land, plastic and metal utensils were being fashioned into imaginary trains choo-choo–ing along to woo little ones into taking the next bite of mashed peas or sweet potato, my mother was engaging us in a similar game – using her hand as the primary vehicle.
Ma, like so many from communities living in the Global South (South Asian and otherwise), would mix up a milder version of whatever the adults were eating – say yellow split pea dhal and rice, roll it into a ball and feed me a mouthful.
Shaping The Way I View Food
Looking back, I realise now that the intimacy of this connection, the transcendence of boundaries between my mother’s fingers and my mouth, the continuation of touch-based sensations throughout the eating process, have shaped the way I view food.
Consumption of a meal, or even a slice of apple, a handful of roasted peanuts, a sip of masala chai starts not with the tongue but, as we know, with the quartet of remaining senses.
The scent of onions braising, bacon frying, coffee brewing – something pungent, sweet, sour or spicy – travels to the olfactory bulb, often eliciting the sensation of one’s mouth watering.
Quite literally, salivary amylase (a digestive enzyme) is released in anticipation. The olfactory bulb records this and fires the intel off to the hippocampus (responsible for memory), and the amygdala (which conducts emotional processing).
This is often why a familiar scent can transport you back to a place or situation you might have filed away for some time. It’s a powerful tool that links our current reality with our trove of memories – which is often why the idea of childhood meals, no matter how simple, elicits such visceral emotional responses.
Think of a roast made by your gran, or a favourite aunt’s lemon pudding. But touch also plays a significant role in how we consume and experience food.
And research shows that the unique flora found on one’s hands are said to influence chemistry, imparting a very specific flavour to our food. It’s a pity that this single sense – touch – a direct connection with our food, is the one often missing at the dinner table.
A Steep Learning Curve
I’m someone who grew up eating with my hands, as everyone in the community I grew up with in the KwaZulu–Natal Midlands did. So there was a steep learning curve ahead when I left home at 17 for university and encountered the mandatory dull cutlery at the canteens.
Had I been braver, more self-assured, with a wilful nature, I might have taken to eating with my hands, sharing a vital part of my Indian culture with those rainbow-nation kids in Bloemfontein.
But this was 1997, just a handful of years post-apartheid and I was keen to discover if I could assimilate in small ways. I’d rather have been ignored (as I often was), than be deemed an “Other”.
The mince curry, sweet and pale, served with yellow rice by the canteen tannies, so different from my mother’s complex, masala-hot dishes, were met with my novice knife-and-fork skills and a quiet determination to get on with it. My parents hadn’t sacrificed all they did for me to act like the odd-one-out.
Simply, I craved acceptance and understanding. So while I stuck out a little by wearing my hair in its untameable curly state, I took seriously the task of eating with cutlery, alongside my fellow students, particularly my white classmates.
I shoved the shame I felt for feeling uncertain at the table and returned to eating with my fingers only in the privacy of a closed dorm room, with friends from similar backgrounds. We shared the food our mothers had painstakingly prepared and frozen, in meal-sized portions, for us to enjoy.
Everything from chicken curry to brinjal-studded dhal, and trotters with sugar beans, made an appearance at those hodgepodge dinners. Without a word, we defaulted to using our hands to eat.
A Wholly Sensuous Experience
The fingers can gauge the ideal temperature; neurons are fired the instant they make contact, the perfect portion can be moulded; it is a wholly sensuous experience that demands one’s complete attention. A social act, it levels the playing field and places the meal at the heart of the table.
It’s been 24 years since those uncertain days at the university canteen. And in spite of all the world-renowned restaurants with countless sets of cutlery that form part of my work life, when I’m at the table – my mother’s or my own – it’s one of my greatest indulgences to wash up, lift up my sleeves and tuck in with my fingers.
Ishay Govender-Ypma is a food and culture journalist living between Cape Town and Lisbon. She’s the founder of SA POC at the Table, a network that fosters collaborations for people of colour in the food, beverage and related creative industries: www.sapoctable.com