Sri Lankans eat with their hands. Actually that’s not correct – Sri Lankans eat with their hand. Their right hand to be precise. (Unless they’re left handed, in which case they use their left but not their right. Confused? Good, read on.)
It’s not only Sri Lankans who do it – people in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia practice what’s known as hand-to-mouth eating. If you’re not from any of these places, chances are you might feel a bit grossed out by the thought of putting your hand into a plate of rice and curry.
I remember that I felt a little weirded-out the first time I sat down at a table where everyone was eating rice and curry with their hands, mainly because I had been brought up to believe that one must eat rice with some kind of utensil. (And even then you get various opinions about what type of utensil to use – in Costa Rica, for example, certain people will think you’re tacky if you eat your rice and beans with a spoon.)
It’s actually strange when you think about it – in the West it’s deemed ok to eat certain things with your hands, like pizza, French fries, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, etc. but that it’s not ok to eat plates of rice, meat and vegetables with your hands. And yeah, I realize that the former foods are much less messy and easier to eat without utensils. But once you realize there is a method to eating rice with your hands, and that it is fairly easy to do once you figure it out, it’s actually much more of a mental thing to get over than a physical one.
The very first meal I had in Sri Lanka was with my husband’s family. My husband had come to pick me up from the airport (yes I travelled all by myself from Costa Rica, which is like a 100 hours of flying. At least that’s how it feels ;-)) and I still remember the rush I felt when I stepped out into the muggy air, saw the palm trees swaying and saw the chaotic scene before me of tuk tuks, people shouting in languages I didn’t understand, and honking cars. One’s first contact with a new country is such a barrage to the senses, especially when it’s a country completely unlike your own.
Anyways, after travelling the 45 minutes it took to get from the airport to my husband’s family home in the suburbs of Colombo, I was greeted by his family with open arms and a lavishly laid out table. It was the first time I was meeting everyone in person (only skype calls prior to this moment) but they were so incredibly nice I immediately felt at ease. It was late morning by this time, and we all sat down to eat. My mother-in-law had prepared a traditional meal to welcome me consisting of kiri bath (milk rice – basically rice cooked in coconut milk instead of water), fish curry, lunu miris (a delicious freshly made paste of dried red chilies, onions, lime, and dried fish) and a few vegetable curries. It’s funny because even when we were living in Costa Rica, in the lead up to our move to Sri Lanka, my husband had tried to prepare me for this moment and had made some curries at home so I could try eating with my hands before getting here. But even still, as everyone sat down at the table and began to dig in to the rice with their hands, I definitely had a Toto-I’ve-a-feeling-we’re-not-in Kansas-anymore moment as reality hit me – I was in a country whose culture was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before.
Everyone told me to go ahead and use a fork and knife, but I quickly said “no way, I’m doing this”! That first contact with the somewhat wet contents of my plate – squishy rice and hot curries – was quite a different experience to say the least. The sensation is vastly different from picking up a piece of pizza or a burger (yeah I know, quite the startling revelation).
In the end, my feeling of strangeness only lasted a few minutes though, and then I was able to just focus on the flavors, which were also completely different to what I was expecting! Why I was expecting more of a North Indian food flavor is another example of just how ignorant we are of other cultures sometimes — Sri Lankan food uses completely different spices and has its own unique flavor that is unlike most Indian cuisine, but in my limited knowledge of this geography I just assumed it would be similar.
Anyway, luckily on the technique side I already knew the basics since my husband had taught me before arriving. Technique, you say? Yep, you can’t just shove food into your face with both hands, people. I think that is the biggest misconception when it comes to this topic. The age-old belief in other countries that eating with utensils is civilized, and eating with one’s hands is not, sometimes leads people to conjure up images of food being shoveled into the mouth haphazardly when they hear of cultures that practice hand-to-mouth eating. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a proper technique to eating with one’s hand and I can wholeheartedly assure you that it is more civilized than how I eat my burgers.
I was once at an office function where they had served kiri bath (coconut milk rice) with several curries and I was confidently teaching a new Chinese coworker how to eat it with her hand. It must have looked pretty funny because the room was packed with Sri Lankans yet I was the one who had decided to teach the other foreigner how to eat in the proper Sri Lankan way, ha. So of course one of my Sri Lankan friends came over and said ‘oh look, it’s like the blind leading the blind’, which I thought was pretty funny at the time, but I am here to assure you that I am actually an expert. If there’s one thing I know how to do well, it’s eat, no matter where I am. So here are a few tips for those of you wanting to try your hand…at eating with your hand (my dad will be so proud of this joke).
7 tips for eating with your hands like a pro:
- Only use your right hand to eat. NEVER your left. Unless you’re left-handed. Then by all means use your left, but not your right. Confusing? The point is to only use ONE hand to eat. (Why? Well I’ve heard that historically the left hand was kept for cleaning your… ahem… after using the toilet. So.)
- Wash your hands thoroughly before eating (this should be a given…but…)
- Sri Lankan rice and curry is meant to be mixed so that you get all the flavors to meld. Begin by taking a bit of rice and mixing it with some of the other curries
- Avoid having to chase food all over your plate – once you have mixed a small amount, form a ball.
- Never touch the food to your palm, only use your fingers to mix.
- Once mixed and formed into a ball, pick it up with your finger tips and use your thumb to push it into your mouth.
- Do not lick your fingers at the end of the meal. If you’re at a restaurant you may be provided with a bowl of water and lime to wash your fingers (nope, that is not a soup, as I heard one foreigner ask once), or you can go find a sink to wash your hands. Restaurants serving rice and curry usually have a sink somewhere close by for this purpose, so sometimes it’s not necessary to go to the bathroom for this.
Trust me – not only does it feel good to get so close and personal with your meal, but Sri Lankan food is meant to be eaten like this – only with the hand can you mix the rice with the curries to get the perfect mix of flavours, and only with the hand can you pick the last bits of chicken off the bone.
Now I’m not going to say that I only eat with my hand now – I sometimes still decide I want to use a fork, especially if I’m not in the mood to get my hands dirty (literally, in this case). If you were a fly on the wall at any Sri Lankan family’s house you might be surprised to find out that sometimes even Sri Lankans choose to eat with a fork. It’s a matter of choice and what you’re in the mood for. No one in Sri Lanka will look down on you for eating with utensils, and no one will laugh at you (I hope!) if you are brave enough to try eating with your hands. In my experience, Sri Lankans are impressed and pleased when a foreigner tries out the local customs, and most would be more than willing to teach you, all you have to do is ask.
Have you tried eating with your hands while in Sri Lanka? How did you feel?